"My parents taught me that cooking was about self-sufficiency, and not some sort of mystical connection to your roots."
Photos by Nick Rose.
We spoke to author Naben Ruthnum about his book Curry: Eating, Reading and Race. Ruthnum is an award-winning fiction writer, but took a detour into food writing to explore his identity and his art through a dish that he grew up eating.
You could say my career as a fiction writer has been leading up to writing a semi-comic "manifesto" like this.
There's an expectation for brown people in Canada, the US, or the UK to tell a certain story over and over. It's the story of longing and the homeland, being a first-generation immigrant, distance from your parents, and being dislocated in society, all of which are perfectly valid things to talk about, but isn't central to the fiction that I, and many other brown writers, write. I wanted to write about these ideas of expectation and formula in the context of food, because curry is a really good metaphor for that.
Curry's a uniquely broad category that contains a lot of different cultural and historical points. One thing I like to say off the bat, that tends to destabilise people, is that chili peppers are not native to India; the Portuguese brought them over in the 15th and 16th century, even though it's something that we consider to be a very crucial part of authentic Indian food and curry.
Some Indian people and brown people in general are scandalised by the existence of pre-made "curry powder," but curry has been so influenced by history and colonialism that there's really no "authentic" curry. The dish has always been about cultural exchange. Indian food changed regionally, shifted to cater to the Mughal palates when they were there, and the colonial British palates when they were occupying the nation. So much of what we think of as Indian food is the North Indian food that took form in Indian restaurants in the UK in the 70s and 80s, like tikka masala.
The reason I use the curry metaphor is, to me, it was the first the first identifiable marker of, "I'm brown, I'm different," and I can tell just by what I'm eating. I grew up in what was, at the time, a super white town—Kelowna, BC. The first thoughts I had about identity came from what I ate. Then, I connected it to the books on my parents' shelf by brown authors. I was expected to read those books and have some sort of communion with the people who wrote them. But someone who grew up in Pakistan and moved to New York is very different from someone like me who was born in Winnipeg, moved out West, and whose parents are from Mauritius.
Growing up, I was asked more than once what was the colour of my blood. It came from a place of ignorance, not racial hatred. In that town, in the early 80s, it was rare to not be white. And when it came to food, the assumption was, "Hey, do you eat curry every night?" which, hey, wasn't completely wrong because we did eat a lot of Indian-inflected foods with rich gravies. Still, it was a really generic way for my white friends and white bullies to categorise what made my identity different from theirs.
To me, curry is a great marker of identity. When I say, "curry," what comes to mind is probably your favourite takeout, but for a brown person, it's their family curry. For example, the recipe I put in the book was one that my mom made all the time. It's one of those dishes that I can't quite get right, which is one of those things that always pops up in these traditional South Asian food stories. It's the idea that you can't quite capture your mother's cooking, which is supposed to stand in for the fact that you can't quite recapture where you came from or the homeland. It's a story that's been told so many times that it's become a trope or a stereotype, but, as I say in the book, often there's truth to these stereotypes and that a real struggle for a brown person who asks "Am I just rehashing this hack story, or is this actually a memory from my own life?"
In my book, I argue that curry doesn't exist. Obviously, I'm being provocative and cheeky here, because curry obviously does exist—it's on your plate. But it's such a huge category and can refer to so many things. I think that's why it's such a great stand-in for a conversation about identity in the West. We have these incredibly different histories and it makes sense that we have incredibly different stories, just as there's an enormous range of dishes that we can call curry.
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When I was a kid, I used self-deprecating jokes to make fun of how I was different from white people culturally. That was my M.O. to negotiate my identity in Whiteville, but i think that's a great way to approach questions of identity. If this book is successful to the reader, it is funny; instead of making a polemic about identity, which I would not have been good at, I'm asking questions and joking around and pointing out things that I think are really serious. Things like how brown people should be able to express themselves however they want to and not have to follow dictates of stories that have been told before.
In the case of someone who isn't from a subcontinental background, they want that authentic experience of someone else's culture, and having it on a plate is better than having to fly there. They really want to see the chef's identity in that meal. For people who are brown, it's important for them to think of their food as a link to the home country—which it is, of course. But the story of curry's authenticity comes through things like countries of trade and colonial influence. I don't think there is a definably authentic curry unless we factor in the fact that India is a country that essentially has the world in it.
I completely understand why people can get territorial about cultural appropriation and their food, but for me, subcontinental food is always cross-cultural. My parents taught me that cooking was about self-sufficiency, and not some sort of mystical connection to your roots. It was about being able to feed yourself.
When I argue that there is no authentic curry, it's important to make the distinction between words like "authentic" and "traditional" and "historical." Of course, a dish that centralises meat and veg and spices and sauce has existed in India for a long time, but those dishes have changed over the last century.
Ever since the chili pepper arrived in India, thanks to the Portuguese and thanks to exploitative international trade, curry has always been a dish that's in conversation with the rest of the world. So, when I say that curry isn't authentic, what I'm saying is that individual brown identity is extremely multi-faceted, always in conversation with the world, always unique.
As told to Nick Rose.