The Indian Culinary Word Power

The Indian Culinary Word Power

India has a higher population of people speaking English than most of the English speaking countries put together. These include UK, Australia, Canada, The United States, South Africa, and New Zealand. More than one thousand words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) over the years. Every year, at least fifty words are accommodated in the dictionary. 

A close look at these words that are incorporated into the dictionary shows over fifteen or more terms associated with Indian cuisine. Indian food, till-date, remains a favourite and most sought out cuisine in the world. It is natural that words such as masala, chutney, tandoor, gulab jamun, jalebi are included in the dictionary. Indian street food is enjoyed by anyone who visits the country. It gives one a true and raw feel of Indian food.

CSP was in conversation with three international chefs, who have visited and worked in India. We posed a couple questions to them on Indian cuisine and the significance of the words added to the OED. 

Chef Stephen Doe worked in Mumbai, Shanghai, Hongkong, Tokyo amongst other places. He is currently the Executive Chef at the Marriott Marquis Bangkok. Michael Hogan is currently the Director of F&B in Bangkok and has worked in India, Thailand and Australia. We also spoke to Chef Christine Walker who has been working in the Hospitality and Culinary industry for over 30 years. In 2012, Christine became the Academic Chair of the Chef School. She is currently leading a portfolio of 10 culinary focused programs in cooking, baking and nutrition.

Chef Doe expressed how fortunate he was to have worked with an amazing team in JW Marriott, Mumbai. Although he did not cook Indian food at the hotel, he always prepared a simple meal at home. To him, the aforementioned words have gained attraction. He said, “The outreach and popularity of Indian cuisine is massive, especially in the UK. It is not just the classical authentic dish that is popular. Even the regional, and more lesser known specialties are becoming popular and sought after. Also, as people travel more now, they want authentic taste and dishes. These words are truly global, especially Tandoori and Masala.”

Indian and its Curries

When it comes to Indian cuisine, the most popular word that is uttered by all is curry. We wanted to understand what people associate “curry” with, and to what extent is this association authentically Indian. Chef Hogan said, “100% correct! There is nothing more Indian than a mortar and pestle pounding spices including mustard, fennel, cumin, and tamarind pods to flavour food, the CURRY. Southeast Asian countries all have their curry dishes, but in some way you can trace back to the Indian roots. Seeing the migration of the Indian curry to Europe and the west has polarized the curry.  Some places like the UK have even invented a few Indian Dishes of their own.” 

On the other hand, Chef Walker said  that she does not think the word curry benefits Indian cuisine. “If you are not educated in food, many people relate curry to a spice mix you can get in a grocery store. Years ago, at George Brown College, we taught a “curry dish” which was curry powder, cooked with onions and garlic.  There was no in depth conversation about how big the term “curry” really is.

What is in your masala dabba?

Speaking of curry powder, we were curious to know the different masalas that the chefs used. Garam masala was the prompt reply from Chef Doe. He always has ingredients at home to make his own. 

Chef Hogan said, “They are all internationally recognised through the world migration of Indian people and the menus they cooked in their new-found homes. You name a country and you will find Indian populations with that comes their culture and thank God for their food.”

The British food Kedgeree is believed to find its roots in our humble khichdi, both in terms of preparation and etymology. Chef Hogan is currently residing in Thailand and says that he is always taken back to Indian cuisine whenever he eats the massaman curry of Southern Thailand. It is a southern Thai dish influenced by Malay and Indian cuisine, said to have been derived from the spices traded by foreigners (the French East-India Company), Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves, nutmeg and mace are the bases of this spice mix.

'Better India' came up with a map of India with different chutneys that belonged to each region. Chef Hogan said he had too many favourites to count but he does love the coconut chutney from the south.  Chef Walker has tried the coriander-coconut chutney, and of course mango chutney. 

The Indian Way

Apart from food, there are cooking techniques that Indians have developed from centuries ago, such as the famous Tandoor and Dum cooking. Chef Hogan expressed his interest in the preparation of the Hyderabadi Biryani. “I lived in Hyderabad for 2 years and I would eat biryani at least 3-4 times per week. I love to eat this dish and I have cooked it but I'm way off mastering it. The aroma, taste, tender meat, the saffron, everything gives it the amazing appearance. Yoghurt makes the meat tender, lemon tangy, fried onions add a crispy sweet taste, and Hyderabadi spices make it hot. 

It is so time consuming to make and you have to cook this dish without walking away. It is cooked with the dum handi, hence the name. But you cannot just dump all the ingredients in. You have to spend time layering the rice, caring for it at every step and placing the ingredients at the right time into the  dum.” Such is the uniqueness and care Indians provide while cooking food. 

Indian Culinary Treasures From The Street

When we speak of Indian food, the wide variety of street food that has reached various doorsteps cannot be ignored. There are more than a hundred different street food delicacies that people enjoy, and have taken back to their home-country. We asked the chefs how OED has contributed to their popularity. Chef Hogan said, “Somewhat, I would say, it is the migration of Indian folk that has popularized the street food dishes. OED would become a point of reference for the curious.” 

Chef Walker added, “I don’t know if the dictionary has contributed much actually.  I think it is more likely the power of social media that has made Indian Food so popular.”

OED’s Influence on Indian Cuisine

The incorporation of Indian and other national culinary terms in the OED is hugely influential according to Chef Hogan. “Indian food has always been popular and will always be. The west has embraced the cuisine as a great dinner option. What are the reasons? I do not think that it has changed at all. It is as popular as ever. If anything, it has just got a whole lot more hip with regional focused restaurants and menu-driven concepts. These include roti houses and tandoor restaurants- Northern, Southern, Vegetarian and even Sect-based outlets.

But the addition of terminologies into the OED brings so much to the understanding of culture. The home cooked meal in an Indian home situated in Sydney, Australia requires the understanding of where and what to buy. This communication comes into play from all concerned along the supply chain.” Chef Walker added that it is a step in the right direction. Also, the authentic documentaries on Netflix also play a huge factor in increasing awareness about cuisines and cultures of countries.”

He also expressed that to a cooking enthusiast, authentic food is interesting. As a consumer, one wants to taste the real deal. Having channels like the OED or even Netflix documentaries gives you a better understanding of what is and what is not the real deal. He recalled working in Hyderabad around 15 years ago, where a western dish was pasta in tomato sauce. Today, with the global understanding of foods around the world, the game has changed. It has become much more diverse that a mere pasta dish. The same can be said for the understanding of Indian food internationally. There is more to Indian food than curry or butter chicken.