Last time I checked it was 2014 and we were living in a merrily multicultural, deliciously diverse and overwhelmingly accepting society… and even the idiots who still have issues with Indian immigration and are far more right-wing than right-on admit to constant curry cravings.
But then my small household found itself on the receiving end of a none-too-neighbourly vial of verbal vitriol delivered straight to the face. Our ‘crime’, it emerged, was committed in the kitchen, and constantly. We, you see, cook ‘curry’, and far too often at that. Or so we were told by them next door. With such rage being poured forth over the ‘disgusting smell, morning, noon and night’, the very valid observation that it’s actually Indian food and rarely spiced gravy all a-bubble atop the stove would have only inflamed the situation further.
I don’t look Indian. I’m not Indian. But I choose to cook Indian food. I’m not going to stop because the haunting aroma of a complex masala offends you so. I could say the same about the Sunday roasts whose scents similarly seep through the shared wall. But I don’t. Because it’s unacceptable, whatever one’s culture (or lack thereof).
The bitter bile came from the mouth of one old enough to know better; but it could have come from that omnipresent kid who taunted a peer in the playground because spicy smells clung to their clothing or their packed lunch packed a punch. Either way, the attitude is ignorant and the approach out of order.
Indian food smells. It smells of passion, emotion, earth, life. It smells of history, tradition, culture. Its smells make the heart sing, the mouth water, and the stomach rumble – not turn.
My ultimate act of defiance? To continue to cook. My food will not whisper where it should shout. I do not and will not use spice for spice’s sake, but neither will I compromise my cooking when Indian cuisine and culture brings me such joy.
As a final two-fingered salute to those rude dudes who see food in shades of grey, I invite you to join me in an exploration of some of India’s most odious ingredients…
An excellent onion-garlic substitute for those who obstain for religious or dietary reasons, the part of ‘asafoetida’ that sounds like ‘fetid’ indicates its pungent perfume. Were further clarification on its status as ‘smelly’ needed, another alias is ‘Devil’s dung’. The resin from a plant in the fennel family is available in crystalline or less-powerful powder form; and hing is the thing that gives many Indian dishes their sweetly earthy underpinnings. Added to hot oil, it emits a more pleasing onion-like aroma.
It’s also an excellently efficacious anti-flatulent, preventing the eater from physically unleashing any potentially offensive odours.
‘Kari patta’ are de rigeur in innumerable dishes throughout South India; considered not only fine in dining but also effective in Ayurvedic medicine. You’re equally likely to see neem as an ingredient in soap as you are in soup – in its bitter form for the former and the sweet type in the latter. The scent is earthy-spicy and citrussy, and what you eat today will be apparent on your skin tomorrow. Not unpleasant, but present. Despite being called ‘curry’ leaves, they don’t smell of such – the name denotes the leaf’s use in all sorts of gorgeous gravies.
Fresh is not just best; it’s the only option for flavour fans. Use them widely and wisely – wash carefully before use as they can carry nasty bacteria.
‘Methi’ means fenugreek, found in many forms in various Indian cuisines – and also invariably under your armpits the morning after you’ve relished a dish deeply flavoured with its savoury splendor. The odour is unmistakable and, for a while at least, unshakable. It is the one that most would most closely associate with the classic ‘curry’ aroma.
Fresh leaves are prepared as a vegetable; the dried ‘Qasuri methi’ (named for the place that produces the finest) adds umami depth to gravies, notably the Old Delhi classic, butter chicken; and the square seeds make up one-fifth of the Bengali spice blend ‘panch phoron’. Despite the wide belief that methi becomes more bitter if burnt, some communities fry the seeds in hot oil until blackened, when they add an incredible and very edible roasty-toasty, marvellously meaty flavour to food.
First off, Bombay duck (or bombil) is not a bird by any stretch of the imagination – it’s a poor old pungent dried fish that many associate with the old-skool curry house. It might have escaped being draped with the oft-mocked flock wallpaper, but it suffers just as much ridicule. Ridiculous, really, when one realises how wonderful it can be. Not everyone agrees, but those who do will happily chew though a lot of that lizardfish; usually in fried form.
One fun, yet untrue, claim about the name name comes from an old Raj insult – ‘you smell like the Bombay dak’ – a bombil-scented mail train. There’s no need to worry you will, though – it’s been banned in Britain since 1997.
‘Black’ salt is not actually black when you get the prepared powder. It’s pale pink. And it smells – even stinks – of boiled eggs; sulphur, not subtle salinity. Confusing, this Indian food lark, innit. Used properly, this powder is precious, not poisonous. It’s excellent sprinkled into cooling beverages like jal jeera or nimbu pani; helping them hydrate as any sports fan with a knowledge of isotonics like Lucozade will understand.
It adds a little je ne sais quois to raitas and chutneys, and is absolutely indispensable in chaat masala; a tongue-tickling blend that gives all those snacky dishes collectively known as ‘chaat’ their characteristic lipsmacking chatpata quality. If you’re not already flinging the magical masala into fruit salad, you are missing out in a major manner.
Like many of these smelly substances, kala namak is known to be good for the gut.
And I will happily stomach it, along with all the above, and each and every individual’s appetite to cook and eat whatever they so wish.
Because the UK’s fine and diverse culture is NOT to be sniffed at.
- Read about more indispensable Indian ingredients here
- Read about more strangely-named Indian foods like Bombay duck here
- Read about Indian food books to inspire you to cook here
- Read about how to shop in an Indian food emporium here