A spicy science: the art of understanding curry and its culture

Regency Club Queensbury NorthWest London Indian restaurant pub bar grill tandoori curry

Curry’ and its surrounding culture is an emotive issue. Wherever you sit on the sliding scale which ranges from abhorring the very word, feeling it belittles the rather large world of Indian cuisine, through to believing chicken tikka masala’n’chips is the most brilliant Brindian invention ever, dropping a ‘c’ bomb can ignite opinions as strong as the spices put into its preparation.

There’s a lot of science behind those spices – along with a whole pile of psychology involved with the enjoyment of Indian food. In fact, there’s so much to the collective concept of ‘curry’ that King’s College saw fit to devote an entire evening to exploring the cuisine that’s become a beloved British institution at its recent ‘Feed Your Mind’ festival.

Sat beside me was a sort-of ‘Spice Nazi’ – a woman who knows a thing or two about what constitutes a Damn Good Curry; as well she ought, being the mind behind the so-named supperclub. In putting ‘the Science of Curry’ to the test, Nel was my litmus paper. If these chaps could captivate her, it would be safe to say they knew their Bombay onions, not to mention their asafoetidas from their elaichis.

 In the promotional paperwork, Clive Page, Andrea Selia and Mark Miodownik promised to make a big bang of sharing the theory behind the so-called ‘Science of Curry’. The night certainly started with a noise, although it was the universal pleasure of poppadom-crunching rather than the sound of worlds colliding that kicked things off.

Ever heard the line ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop’? Turns out it pertains to poppadoms, not Pringles. The uniform regularity of a snack like the latter actually helps humans exercise personal portion control – put simply, smarties say that you’ll eat more multicoloured M&Ms than you would if they came in a single shade.

So it’s irregularity that appeals – rendering the bubbled and blistered, crazy-paving pieces of a broken poppadom irresistible. More so if they come in multiple flavours. Although in the West we commonly crack into the crisp discs as a pre-starter, in India they’re often offered with a main meal; a crunchy contrast to something softer.

Rice papads Gymkhana chutney Amira Foods

However you eat yours, the sensory pleasure of poppadoms is undeniable. Biting down on something so brittle is like a firework display exploding inside your head, the colour coming in the form of flavour. Bar the odd muffled crunch overheard by your immediate neighbours, the oral and aural pleasure is private.  But the eating experience is so much better shared.

Remember sharing a packet of crisps in the playground, digging deep into the crinkly packet for the final crumbs? It turns out that the pleasure of poppadoms and similar snacks also has a lot to do with packaging. Crinkly materials that sound as crisp as the foods found within suggest freshness – ever noticed that big brand snacks favour foil-lined packs whilst cheaper crisps are in less-rustley receptacles?

A soggy poppadom is a crime every bit as heinous as those soggy-bottomed pastries that so perturb Paul Hollywood in the Great British Bake Off. Textural interplay is a factor oft-overlooked in Western cuisines. But in India, ‘Poppadom Science’ is widely practised and preached. You’ll find sensational contrasting sensations evident in everything from a well-balanced thali to streetfood snack platters.

That crunch doesn’t always come from carbohydrate – sometimes the stinging bite of a fresh, crisp green chilli is what’s called for. Don’t be fooled, there’s more to the pleasure of these spicy little numbers than pain. One of the lecturers’ first points on the hot topic of chillies is that the thing responsible for the burn, capsaicin, is an antidote to that very affliction, well-known for its anaesthetic effects. Chillies can also create feelings of euphoria, leaving you craving more.

It’s perfectly possible to build a tolerance to heat – in fact, in clinical trials, repeated exposure to chillies in young animals has resulted in the irreversible destruction of sensory receptors. The concept carries interesting possibilities concerning chronic pain management; indeed, we learn that a tiny pocket of Pakistani people have been identified as being immune to pain, although any connection with chilli consumption is by no means confirmed.

What is confirmed by all present is that ‘The Cinnamon Challenge’ is not one to try at home. We watch in horrified fascination as the team streams a slow-mo Youtube clip of two chaps attempting to hold a teaspoon of dry cinnamon powder in their mouths. The result? Think a spice version of Holi gulal-flinging; the powder pouring from their bug-eyed faces like fire from a dragon.

chillies (2)

Anyone who’s roasted spices or fried chillies in an unventilated area will have had the experience to a lesser extent – that burning irritation in the chest which triggers an insuppressible and violent fit of coughing. Basically, when the volatile chemical compounds in the spices meet your sensory receptors, expect explosive results – and, perhaps, open a window before you get cooking.

Onion tears are far more real than the crocodile kind, and are another unpleasant effect associated with curry cooking. This topic proves even hotter than the conversation caused by chillies, as attendees offer their tips for eluding the effect caused by alliin When cut, oxygen enters the onion, releasing this enzyme; a substance so potent that it’s been used in warfare.

Meanwhile, our battle is over the best method of staying dry-eyed. Ideas range from the practical – wearing goggles, to the strange – sucking a spoon. The Spice Nazi insists that a brief pre-chop immersion in water works; whilst the professors suggest that turning on a kitchen tap can stop you turning on your body’s own by creating a localised ventilation system.

Just ensure all that ventilation doesn’t result in ground turmeric flying about the place – stains supplied by that sunshine-hued spice are a bugger to get out. The vibrancy we perceive is all to do with electron movement, and applying bleach stops this movement in its tracks. So the stain remains; we just don’t see it. A dab of an alkaline like milk will change the PH and lighten the mark.

Full marks from The Spice Nazi so far, until we touch upon turmeric’s medicinal application. The spice has been suggested as an effective anti-carcinogen in both Eastern and Western disciplines, but the academics don’t address the vibrant root’s antiseptic nature. It’s a minor omission, but an odd one – surely the notion of packing a wound with turmeric to improve healing isn’t so esoteric?

But then, tonight’s lecture only touches upon the medicinal effects of common curry ingredients. For deeper discussion, we should have signed up for ‘Hot & Spicy Drugs’- the Feed Your Mind event devoted to exploring solely that subject matter. Back in ‘The Science of Curry’, we’re onto the subject of what substance is most soothing for the soul – or at least, a spice-singed mouth.

The British hypothesis has always had it that the hydration offered by an ice-cold pint is the perfect pairing when consuming curry. There’s a storm brewing with The Spice Nazi, who does not concur that anything brought from a brewery will bring anything of any merit to the experience. She suggests wine as a more refined tipple; something sufficiently complex to stand up to spice.

But what does science say on the subject? For a start, the coldest watery beverage won’t wash away capsaicin – it’s not water soluble. You need something oilier to obliterate the burn; hence buttermilk-based lassi. Milk works, too; the richer the better. Whilst pure alcohol is used as a solvent in the calculation of chilli strength on the Scoville scale, the amount present in a pint of beer couldn’t diffuse a dopiaza, let alone a proper chilli bomb.

So why has beer become the choice of the curryhouse connoisseur? It could be the chill factor. Whilst your mouth doesn’t really get hotter when you foolishly fill it with phall, your sensory receptors trigger the same response to the phantom increase as it does when you have a fever. Cool liquids cause the adverse to occur – the actual temperature change offsetting the perceived one.

It’s also suggested than we love the pleasant prickle of carbonated liquids, and that the clean, cool bitterness of beer contrasts winningly with fatty, hot, rich curries. But however coolly dispassionate the science, the psychology of our burning passion for a few brews with a bhuna owes a lot to culture.

To most Brits, a ‘curry night’ is a unique experience in its own right, associated with a specific set of rituals and traditions. It’s not intended as an appreciation of the finer points of Indian cuisine; rather, a cheap and cheerful convivial evening for all-comers. Pints go further than wine in watering a crowd – and by and large, curryhouse wine lists rarely either inspire or illuminate.

The packed room is still thirsty for knowledge, but sadly, that’s our lot. The Spice Nazi and I have a lot to chew over, and our stomachs are doing rather a lot of talking themselves. Within minutes, we find ourselves ladling spicy coconut gravy over rice in a local restaurant. Call it art or call it science; curry has us firmly in its grip and, it seems, just won’t let us go.

Spice Kitchen dabba

Main image: Regency Club


7 responses to “A spicy science: the art of understanding curry and its culture

  1. Lovely article
    Love the word “Spice Nazi”

    Talking of teary onion eyes , folk tales say that keeping another onion on your head while chopping the onion on your chopping board helps !


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