31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2006
This book is more than a history of Indian cuisine. It is a history of India as reflected in its food. Each chapter is ostensibly the history of a certain dish (biryani, vindaloo, korma, curry), but it is also a history of a certain era in Indian history and how Indian food changed in that era.
Collingham argues that there is no such thing as "authentic" Indian cooking. Indian cooking has developed largely through the influence of outside powers invading the subcontinent and bringing a new set of ingredients or tastebuds with it. These new ingredients and tastes mixed with what was already there, adding a new layer to Indian cookery. Mughal tastes led to the invention of biryani. The Portuguese brought peppers from the New World and their Indian chefs created vindaloo. Cooks for the British essentially invented curry to suit British tastes.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book--and one overlooked by most reviewers--is its sources. Collingham has read dozens of historic accounts of travel through India. Some Mughal, some British, some French. These travelogues from the Middle Ages through the 19th century provide a fascinating window into Indian life and food at the time. These are complemented by contemporaneous recipes (and modern ones) for dishes from a given era.
You will learn how Indian cuisine developed and you will learn how India developed, and you will discover that both were the result of new influences meeting with the old India over centuries.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2006
Collingham's book, while quite well-written and easy to read, is also a substantial piece of scholarship. Among other things, Collingham is excellent in her de-bunking of the myth of an "authentic" Indian food. Any historian of medieval and early modern India knows that what we now think of as distinctively Indian is a hybrid of numerous cultures. After all, the chili pepper, potatoes, and tomatoes only arrived in India with the Portuguese starting in the 16th century!
Her chai recipe is also quite good. (Why would you ever buy the pre-mixed stuff from the store?)
23 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2011
When I saw this book, I was pretty intrigued and thought I would find an interesting read into my culinary background. However, as I read along, I was heavily disappointed and at times taken aback by the gross oversimplification and glossed over half-truths that were scattered throughout the book.
The book's fundamental premise is that the Indian food and flavors as experienced by many through Indian restaurants throughout the world is really not 'authentic' and was really introduced by various tribes that invaded India starting from the 16th century - from the Persians to the British. The premise is first of many half, quarter or even less truths in the book.
If the premise is taken as is - that is - the Indian food that one normally consumes, is not authentic, then it is true. Most of the items sold in Indian restaurants (authentic or otherwise) is primarily from North India - which in turn, was heavily influenced by Mughals over 300 years. Does that mean that "all" Indian food is authentic? Absolutely not. It is similar to saying that "General Tsao's chicken" is an American invention and hence all Chinese food was introduced by USA! It reminds me of a recent episode when a Chinese colleague of mine came to USA, tasted Chinese food at a famous restaurant and declared that this was in no way "Chinese".
Fundamentally, any cuisine taken out of its country of origin would not be authentic - in most cases, it is modified to suit the taste of the target audience. Moreover, the flavors and freshness of the ingredients are not truly reflected in other places. The author seems oblivious to this point or has conveniently chosen to ignore it.
Another giveaway of the half-truths is the selective inclusion of the items considered for the book - almost every dish is either a Mughal influenced dish or a British influenced dish. This reminds me of another famous (although fictitious) Britisher's statement - "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has facts. Inevitably one tends to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts".
In essence, the author seems to have decided that Indian food was made by Mughals and Britishers and then has gone ahead to pick and choose the dishes that satisfy this theory, and hence concluded that all dishes in India were introduced/influenced by Mughals and British. The basis of the argument seems to be that all Indian restaurants in Britain offer these dishes and hence these dishes must be the only primary Indian dishes!
This reverse logic reverberates throughout the book and sadly drowns some of the interesting tidbits that are found along the way. In addition, the author also seems to have a penchant to select phrases from historic Indian accounts (mainly by British authors) that portray India in general as a barbaric, uncivilized, and uncouth country that had no idea of manners before they were invaded by more civilized folk. While I can understand this sentiment by a Victorian historian of the past, to be recanted by an author of this day and age who should have a much better and broader perception of the true facts is very saddening.
The author has also chosen to specifically focus on the non-vegetarian dishes of a country that has a vast vegetarian history. Examples quoted of kings eating rat meat and frogs tend to depict a bizarre 1% scenario into a 99% common practice. This is akin to someone watching "Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom" and then concluding that all Indians are cannibals.
A more appropriate title of this book (although not as catch) could have been "Indian food from a British perspective" or "British perceptions of Indian food", as that is what the book truly is - a biased opinion and not really an authoritative historic account of anything.
I wish the author had the sensibility to due a true research on such an interesting topic than to rely on biased viewpoints of a specific segment of the world and then generalize it as the truth. The book may be a good read for a layman Westerner who wants to know where Chicken Vindaloo came from, but it is far portraying the intricacies and varieties of Indian Cuisine.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2009
This is just the kind of book that's serialised in the Sunday Times (the one printed in England).
A potted history of India following the development of its culture and cuisine, hilariously brief in many parts.
Rather than being a history of Indian cooking, it is more a history of the inrtoduction of Indian cuisine in English culture and the acceptance and development of Indian restaurant in England.
Yes, the author does look into the evolution of the various schools of gastronomy in India, but it is all leading up to the focus on England and it's food culture. In all fairness the many interesting vignettes she comes up with, are quite interesting, but a history it is not.
The recipes are interesting and I am sure to try them.
Do not read this, expecting a serious history of Indian food.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Well-written, exhaustively researched, and with a very interesting topi, this is an intriguing book. I enjoyed reading it, and getting an overall perspective on curry, to go with my exhaustive eating experiences both in the US and in India.
If there were more recipes, I'd have given it 5 stars. If there were no recipes, I'd have given it 5 stars. I found in inclusion of only a few recipes distracting, hence the 4 stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2013
I got this book because I like to cook, like Indian food, and am interested in learning about India where I will be traveling next year. This was a real find. It tells the history of India from the point of view of how various groups have come into India carrying its own cuisine and adapting that food to India. So Magyars came in from the north and perfected a cuisine eaten in Northern India and unknown in the rest of India. Portuguese came to southwestern India and brough cuisine that melded with Indian food from that area. This happened all over India resulting in very diverse styles of cooking, ingredients, etc. Then the British came and melded the various cuisines from all over India into much of what we see as "Indian food". Well written, filled with mouth watering recipes, and highly informative and entertaining.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2007
This book covers the different groups that invaded India, and covers the specific foods, and attitudes towards food, that the invaders brought with them. The attitude towards food is particularly interesting. One example:
The British who were there in the first half of the 1800's, the East India Company men, revelled in Indian food. But, after the rebellion, when the British in India were dominated by the Civil Service types, the attitude became one of condescension towards Indian food. Every effort was made to eat British.
This isn't a cookbook, but there are some recipes included, which I thought well chosen. They are included for illustrative purposes. Some are not intended to be cooked, but some are.
A final example: Vindaloo is a variation on a Portugese dish. The name means vinegar and garlic. If you find that sort of item interesting, you'll enjoy this book.
I found myself using my Indian and Portugese cookbooks as references as I was reading. I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a very long time.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2007
If your first taste of India was in a high school world history class, where you struggled to engorge and disgorge the indigestible names and exploits of Mughals, rajahs, and viceroys, this book will cleanse your palate. Dr. Cunningham uses the story of the development of diverse modern Indian cuisine as a savory entree into the religious, ethnic, and political history of the subcontinent, much as Jules Tygiel uses baseball as a lens for studying America in his book "Baseball As History." Curry is indeed a compelling synecdoche for pan-Indian culture. And Dr. Cunningham seasons her prose as skillfully as any chef, even to the point of including some artful recipes as illustrations of her basically scholarly narrative.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This remarkably entertaining account of history of Indian cuisine surprised me....having grown up in India and essentially having 'Indian' food every meal, this book was sort of an eye-opener. Most readers familiar with India probably knew about its rich cultural, religious, and lingual diversity. The extent of how well different ethnic groups have amalgamated in India over time is perhaps best illustrated in the evolution of her cuisine. To that extent, the book is more of a historical account of India, narrated from the point of view of food. May be all historians should try this approach!
The book is organized into several 'independent' delicious chapters (with some recipes at the end of each one), each focusing on one main dish/region/time period. The extensive research associated with the book is evident from the notes and citations. Written in a very easy-going narrative style, this book is a must-have.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2007
As a friend of mine once remarked, the measure of a culture is in the complexity & variety of its cuisine. Lizzie Collingham's book is a look into the development of this complexity & variety through centuries of conquests of the Indian mainland, & the consequent assimilation of societies, customs & spices.
From the Moghuls to the Potuguese & finally to the British, the Indian subcontinent's cuisine has been in a millenia-long flux. This book is the story of this flux. Sure, there is a huge plurality of cuisines, particularly regional, that aren't a part of this book, but, for me, what this book might/could/should have been is nearly not as important as what the book is.
As Collingham talks about the cuisines, she also documents a great deal of history & nuances often not part of text-book history. You'd find the Moghuls becoming "Indian" with Akbar, the Portuguese marrying Indian women & the consequent Indianization of the Portuguese househlds, & in the late 19th century, "...as Victorian Britain was enthusiastically embracing the idea of empire, & curry was becoming a favoured dish among the middle classes, Anglo-Indians were busily eradicating as many traces of India as possible from their culture."
Of course, there are recipes in this book. A mere handful of them. But they're all captured in the minutest of details. Unlike the 4 to 5 step Biriyani making process that you'd find on the web, this book's Biryani recipe is two & a half pages long - so that if you follow it well enough, you may be able to soften up an emperor enough to get a grant of 10 acres of prime real estate or some such royal favour.