Durban bunny chow. Picture: Leon Lestrade/ANA Pics
Durban bunny chow. Picture: Leon Lestrade/ANA Pics

Indian cooking has enriched the world with flavours and spices unique to the subcontinent

By Sacha van Niekerk Time of article published Sep 12, 2021

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Every region in India has its distinct delicacies and styles of cooking. But when it comes to curry, there is a technique called tempering that is widespread.

This consists of the complex layering of dry roasted spices blended together before being braised in oil with onions, ginger, garlic and chilli.

This step liberates pungent aromatics, while other compounds in the mix mingle to enhance warm notes.

A range of spices that can be layered for form curry powder. Picture: Julia Volk/Pexels.

Unfortunately, to the untrained palate, this level of sophistication in cooking may go unnoticed and under-appreciated. This was at least the case for American syndicated humour columnist for The Washington Post, Gene Weingarten.

Last month, he penned an article as part of his weekly column titled: "You can't make me eat these foods”. In it, he systematically picked apart various foods he cannot seem to stomach that included blue cheese, Old Bay seasoning and hazelnuts. On the list, he also included Indian food.

"The Indian subcontinent has vastly enriched the world, giving us chess, buttons, the mathematical concept of zero, shampoo, modern-day non-violent political resistance, Snakes and Ladders, the Fibonacci sequence, rock candy, cataract surgery, cashmere, USB ports ... and the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based on entirely one spice," Weingarten wrote in the original version of the column.

Weingarten’s controversial words fell below a rather apt illustration depicting him as an adult baby in a high chair with a bib on. Although the column is meant to take on some form of wit and sarcasm, many felt that it seriously missed the mark and exposed the two-time Pulitzer winner for being ignorant and having a gravely misinformed understanding of what spicing entails. To say Indian cooking makes use of one spice is factually incorrect, although it seems Weingarten has the impression that curry powder is a spice of its own.

The pulverisation of spices to create a unique blend that is specially put together for a particular dish. Picture: Vivek/Pexels.

From the vanilla bean-studded custard croissants displayed in Parisian bakeries to the tongue-tingling biltong eaten on safaris in Africa, India is most likely to thank for every flavourful morsel as it contributes about 75% of global spice production. The Journal of Ethnic Foods states that, sourced from various parts of plants including the bud, bark, root, flower, and fruits, 50 out of the 80 spices grown in the world are from India, many of which are native.

To make a curry powder, whole spices are toasted to release some of the oils, making the blend more fragrant. Select spices are chosen to marry together unique flavours that suit various dishes. Once cooled, the spices are finely ground into a powder or pounded into a paste that is usually prepared fresh.

Model, author, activist and host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation Padma Lakshmi was one of the first celebrities to respond to Weingarten’s column via Twitter. “Is this really the type of coloniser 'hot take' the @washingtonpost wants to publish in 2021- sardonically characterising curry as ‘one spice’ and that all of India's cuisine is based on it?”

"For generations, people have slung racist insults about the “stinky” foods of immigrants: Italians with garlic, Irish with cabbage, Koreans with kimchi and, yes, South Asians with curry. It was never funny," she wrote. "What’s puzzling is that editors and copy editors let his words through. Does The Post still have so little diversity among editors that this mini-screed raised no red flags?" she added.

In response to the backlash he received on the piece, Weingarten was quick to defend himself. "Took a lot of blowback for my dislike of Indian food in today’s column so tonight I went to Rasika, DC’s best Indian restaurant. Food was beautifully prepared yet still swimming with the herbs & spices I most despise. I take nothing back," he shared in a now-deleted tweet.

Radient Golden Rose frozen yoghurt is made with with rosewater, turmeric, cardamom, and saffron - the perfect example of how Indian spices have been adopted by other regions to be enjoyed. Picture: Instagram.

One minuscule example of how the sub-continent has offered the world more than just one spice or dish is the various ways in which turmeric is enjoyed.

The bright orange root is used as a spice in Indian cuisine and happens to contain bioactive compounds that promote good health. This includes strong anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants that protect cells against free radicals. Packed into pills popped by health nuts, in facemasks, dyes and more, it’s most commonly used in drinks.

“Flu shots” have stocked the shelves of grocery stores in recent years but anyone who has grown up in an Indian household will know about the honey, lemon, ginger and turmeric tea their grandmother would prepare for them when ill with a cough or sore throat.

Then there’s the “golden milk” craze endorsed by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian, but in Indian households, this drink is simply referred to as haldi milk and it is served with cow’s milk, turmeric, cinnamon and ginger - the perfect winter pick-me-up. Dating back to ancient times, the health benefits of spices were well known in India and formed part of Ayurvedic healing used to improve the taste of food as well as enrich the body with important vitamins and antioxidants.

In South Africa, a lot of our favourite cuisine is uplifted with a tangy side of chutney to take flavours to the next level. The roots of chutney date back as far as 500 BC in India when bottling fruit and veggies with vinegar, oils and spices could help prolong the shelf life of perishables.

Subsequently, this style of preparing the ingredients was brought back to the Romans and British after their trade encounters with South Asia. Today, these flavourful sauces are served as a dip alongside chaat (savoury snacks that originated in India). Various countries have their own versions that range in sweetness, spice and texture. In South Africa, sweet, tangy fruit chutneys are eaten with breyani and Durban style curries to cut through the richness of the dishes and help balance out the spiciness.

When one thinks of Indian cooking, the most prominent of all the dishes is curry. With gravies that vary in richness, texture and consistency, most curries are built on the foundation of spices along with cinnamon sticks, onion, chilli, garlic, curry leaves, tomatoes and vegetables, protein or both.

Whether it’s served over steaming hot basmati rice or mopped up with pieces of naan slathered in butter, Indian cuisine was rated among the top 10 most popular cuisines in the world, standing at number nine, with an average popularity score of 62% across the 24 countries. The UK even named chicken tikka masala as one of its national dishes, highlighting just how loved the flavours of Indian cuisine are across the globe.

This article first appeared in Sunday Insider, September 12, 2021

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