“You smell a little like curry, but I don’t mind it”
I was 16 and not ready for my heartbreaks to start with blatant microaggressions targeting my heritage. Six years later, I’m still baffled by why my then beau would think this would remotely be a compliment. Maybe I weed out my dating pool, but what of the work spaces wondering when I would come in with a tray of tikka masala or samosas and the friendships around the food tourism I offer? In a world without color – I’m a curry pumping machine. I think I’ll save my energy and write the answer I wanted to scream at more than one encounter. We’re more than curry. We’re more than a punchline of your “harmless” passive aggressive curry humor. A word coined by our colonizers becoming the dominant narrative of desi representation is telling of a “post-racial” world we were promised but do not live in.
“Curry” stews in the violence that the British colonies wreaked upon us. Our lands were forcefully robbed, our people assaulted, and centuries of pillage continue to paint our future over spices. People know of the colonization that occurred in south asian regions, but not a lot realize that “curry” was the insult forced to be ours. As the world tries to fit thousands of years of culture of an area vibrant with different communities into a one dimensional word, we continue to lose our autonomy in matters of our legacy. The UK still touts curry being one of its national dishes, demonstrating the ugliness of the dynamics of colonial powers that monopolize desi cuisine to only be validated within eurocentric validations. This representation while still being othering, centers north indian food to be central to the image of curry. In a region where communities are still fighting casteism, colorism, and antiblackness, curry continues to alienate and make being desi a performative aspect that is centered around north indian cuisine. This word homogenizes cultural dishes from all around former territories within Asia who’s only commonality was that they shared the same colonizer.
I realize as the world became globalized, theses sensitive wounds became shared. I remember when I first saw chicken curry on the menu at a Japanese restaurant when I first arrived in the states. I was surprised that they would offer what I thought was a translation of a traditional dish cooked on Sundays, but found the dish to have familiar flavors in a completely different interpretation. It was the moment that drew me in to tracing our food histories, often they have the scars left behind by our colonizers and tell a story with our stomachs. The warm temperatures of our regions and the mineral rich content of our lands made us wealthy in spices that preserved and flavored our foods. These very spices became the primary motivations of Vasco de Gama, Colombus and others to begin their imperialistic conquests that disrupted the lives of indigenous folx. The British used these spices along with jewels and other resources to reap profits for over 200 years and still refuse to give any reparations. Curry powder was introduced in the late 1800s to Japan as a means to solve fatigue and increase productivity from laborers. It was mixed with a flour roux as a way to incorporate more gluten to energize workers and offer an alternative for times of rice shortages. The British colonies spread these spices to other countries as well, all while erasing the history of the people they were profiting at the expense of, trading something that was NEVER theirs. It traces itself to the sugarcane plantations the British set over all of West Indies. The cuisine that emerges is a testament to the communities that fused in the site of violence of colonization and salvery.
But “curry” itself was born not just from a laziness but a complete disdain to what the indigenous communities described themselves and their cuisine as, their terms being disregarded. The flavors, textures, even ingredients are completely different based on region, some dairy based or others completely vegan yet they all are “curry”. So while the British ended up monopolizing this capitalistic venture, they continued to characterize our cuisine and method of complex levels of flavor as being barbaric. This conflicting arrogance sprawled the need to concentrate on ingredients as they are in their “purest” form which led most of British food to become swindled into the bland mess it is today. However, colonization resides in hypocrisies and profits of our labor which can be seen within appropriation (curry n chips is a national dish).
I walk to the grocery stores nowadays with this conflicting feeling of a spark of feeling recognized and a sadness of knowing these products don’t mean I’m less of an other. You can take my ghee, my garam masala, and even my chai, but that doesn’t mean that desi folx won’t be discriminated by land lords or even denied housing for the “curry” we bring. You can make a profit off these sales, but not a penny will be returned to the land and people you pillaged as you try to make sophisticated your caucasian home. Sometimes I wonder if curry was used to bolster an exotic fetishization of our communities as we proceeded to simply eat chicken and rice, a dish common across many ethnicities. What is so smelly about flavor? I get told that how can I be so vehemently against curry when there’s a curry powder? There’s a curry leaf but not powder. Friends, I’ll let you in on another secret, curry powder is just turmeric with garam masala and no those are not the ingredients for chole, chicken tikka masala, or any of these well known “curries”. So when you are gathering these ingredients, please pay it forward and go to your local family owned desi grocery store. Don’t go to Trader Joe’s looking to commit the sins of appropriation, ok?
This one in particular is a dish that is lovingly made for me by my partner or sometimes lovingly made by me for them depending on who’s coming home later. I’ve ventured into food blogging before but I think I was trying to keep up with a westernized form of cuisines from avocado toasts to banana ice cream. Its one of the things I appreciate so much about my partnership, we get to reclaim our familial history within the kitchen and it gave me the confidence to share my reclamation with you all. Because as diverse as the countries of the south asian region are, there are also a lot of basics within these dishes that lay the foundation. As pathans and biharis, each time we discover another one together, it feels like we’re forging a world together with each variation of our childhood favorites. Our food is a site of colonization, but together with you, I am finding self love in this khana.
There are different variations to this karahi chicken but this particular recipe comes from the mountains of Swat hence the peshawari. With most karahi chicken, the concept is to cultivate flavors within a pot, letting region decide which ingredients come together. I find myself still cooking up a pot on Sundays trying to recreate the tradition at my grandparents. Each part of the chicken would be used up and each family member ended up having a favorite part. My love affair with garlic started here, I have fond memories of my nani cutting garlic in half and throwing it in to the pressure cooker which would cook this dish to perfection. I don’t have a pressure cooker in the states, but I have these memories that help me stew and simmer flavors with depth that I hope can offer you instant comfort in a bowl of rice too.
- 2 medium potatoes
- 1 whole onion
- 5-6 whole chilies
- 5 garlic cloves minced
- 1 inch ginger minced and cut into matchsticks
- handful cilantro
- 2 lb chicken legs and thighs
- 1 tbsp garam masala
- 2 tsp chili powder
- 2 tbsp salt
- 2 tbsp pepper
- 4 tomatoes
- juice of half a lemon
Heat the pan to medium high. Take off the skin of the chicken and toss into pan along with the garlic and ginger. Add salt, pepper, and chili powder. Let it brown and put aside.
In the leftover oil, add in onions and some more garlic. Let it brown. Add in chilies, and cilantro.
Add in the chicken, diced potatoes, and ginger matchsticks. Again, brown these ingredients together. Blend the tomatoes with some water until it has a puree like consistency.
Dump the puree in and 2 cups of water. Add garam masala and rest of the salt as you lower the flame to low and cover pot with lid. Let this simmer for 15-20 minutes and you’ll know if you’re on track as the gravy turns brownish red. After, take the lid off and raise the flame to medium-high and simmer again for 5-10 minutes until its the thick consistency you desire. Squeeze the lemon and stir one last time.
Pair with white/brown/cauli rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat or even flatbreads..the world is your karahi! But in all seriousness, you can make a huge pot easily and it’ll last you the whole week unless your roommates find it first!