Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Annie Paul | Curry mi ackee?

Published:Wednesday | June 28, 2017 | 6:00 AM

It's not often that a columnist has the gratification of knowing that she's hit her mark. The amount of space the Jamaica Observer dedicated in its Sunday edition to dismantling my reputation merely proves the point I was making: that the once-promising newspaper has devolved into little more than a ragbag for settling scores.

The vituperative article was a response to my last column, a critique of an anonymous 'news item' attempting to whitewash the Observer managing director's recent conviction for dragging his feet when requisitioned for information by the Office of the Contractor General.

The article savaging me also ran without a byline. That these items are penned anonymously only serves to discredit the would-be newspaper further. Jamaica Observer writers must grow some balls, man! Lob your word grenades under your own name or risk losing in the credibility stakes. As one tweeter said: "Don't much value opinion pieces without a byline." Shame, shame.

 

Misconceptions

 

And now on to what I had planned to write about in this last column before I take my summer break next month the misconception of many Jamaicans that curry is a spice and that it is synonymous with turmeric. Turmeric is an essential ingredient, but it is not sufficient by itself to make a curry.

Curries include several other spices besides turmeric ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin and chili powder, black pepper, mustard seed, curry leaf, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon but as it is turmeric that imparts the famous yellow colour to curries, people seem to think that that is what curry is.

In truth, curry, or kari in South India, simply means a dish with a spicy gravy. Depending on what kind of food is being curried and where, the combination of spices will vary, producing an incredible cornucopia of curries across the length and breadth of India, and now the rest of the world.

So where did the idea of curry powder come from? The British, on their colonial adventure in India, bucked up curries everywhere they turned and became addicted to the pungent stews. Accordingly, they did what they did best in those days - they colonised the curry by converting it into a fixed mixture of spices which they dubbed 'curry powder', a thing that was unknown before their arrival. Indians, as I said before, mixed their own combination of spices, on the spot, before making a curry, so the spices would be fresh and not bottled.

Go to any Indian restaurant and survey the long list of curries under each meat kind. Each one tastes completely different, which would be impossible were they all cooked with the same curry powder. A South Indian curry is quite distinct from a North Indian one, and each of those regions has thousands of different curry dishes.

Curry leaf, or Kari pata, grows abundantly in Jamaica, a fine, particularly aromatic variety. When you find it growing in a yard, you can bet at some time Indians must have lived there. Curry leaf is mainly used in South India as something to temper a curry with. You fry it at the end along with mustard seeds and one or two other spices and add it to a finished curry as a final little burst of flavour.

So the British vastly improved their rather rudimentary cuisine with the invention of curry powder, but curries truly migrated when Indian indentured labourers started carrying their cuisine and culture with them to far-flung spots on the planet. Is there anything quite as tasty as Creole curries such as Jamaican curried goat, I wonder? In Guadeloupe, they call their curries 'colombo', no doubt after the Tamil word kulambu, a type of Tamilian curry. Most of the Indians who migrated to Guadeloupe and Martinique were Tamilian.

There's a great story about Indian spices even playing a tiny role in WWII, according to DeWitt and Pais' cookbook, A World of Curries. It was felt that the large numbers of Indians who had joined the British army then were being used as cannon fodder, sent into battle instead of able-bodied English soldiers, even when wounded. Indian soldiers started messaging their families and friends at home not to enlist for service on the Western front. Wartime censorship restrictions, however, forced them to use what became known as 'curry code', referring to themselves as red pepper and the British as black pepper.

A verbatim message that was caught by the British army's censors read: "Further, no black pepper is obtainable in this country. It has all been used up. There is a large quantity of red pepper, but they are living upon the black, day and night. Owing to the lack of black pepper we are having a hard time." Apparently, wartime Indian migration to England dropped drastically.

I'll be off for the month of July. 'Til soon!

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.