In 2001, foreign minister Robin Cook declared the chicken tikka masala Britain's "national dish"; Collingham reports that the British consume 18 tonnes of it each week, accounting for a hefty portion of the $3.5 billion or so that they spend each year at Indian restaurants.
Those who sneer at the chicken tikka masala for being inauthentic—and many do—would do well to read Collingham's lovely new book. Tracking down the origins of popular Indian dishes like the biryani, korma, vindaloo, and dhansak, she makes the surprising discovery that most of Indian cuisine is, in fact, a mongrel creation. As she shows, many of the dishes that seem most quintessentially "Indian" to Western palates are reworkings of Middle Eastern prototypes brought to India by immigrants and invaders. Over the centuries, Turks, Mongols and Persians rode down into India, bringing their love of meat, oil and nuts to a land of Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus, who favored vegetables, milk and spices. The result, says Collingham, was that "these apparently mismatched culinary cultures came together to produce a synthesis of the recipes and foods of northern Hindustan, Central Asia, and Persia." So the recipe for the Persian rice dish called the pilau, altered by chefs in the kitchens of the Mughal emperors, becomes the Indian biryani. The rogan josh, originally a Persian meat curry, travels down to Kashmir, becomes spicier, and turns reddish in color when a local herb is added. And the vindaloo, the dish that, to foreigners, epitomizes the fieriness of Indian cooking, was brought to Goa by its Portuguese conquerors; the name comes from carne de vinho e alhos—meat cooked in wine vinegar and garlic.
Collingham tells the story of how the culinary habits of conquerors and conquered got jumbled up in India with great flair, drawing on historical records and local lore to color her tale. Thus she relates the legend, still prevalent in the Indian city of Lucknow, that the local shammi kebab, a mincemeat patty, is made with particularly fine meat because a toothless 18th century Nawab would otherwise not have been able to gnaw his way through it. If all these stories make you hungry, Collingham thoughtfully supplies several historically accurate recipes, ranging from the zard birinj, a rice dish eaten by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, to the Besan laddu, a sweet handed out to pilgrims at Tirupati, the most famous of Hindu temples. Although, as the author herself advises, you might want to stay away from the 12th century recipe for roast black rat from the court of King Somesvara III.
While the first part of Collingham's book describes how many Indian curries came into being, the second part explains how the British Empire spread these dishes throughout the world, by creating the peculiar institution of the Indian restaurant. Almost every Indian who has gone abroad has wondered why the overwhelming majority of "Indian" restaurants in London are run by Bangladeshis; actually, Collingham writes, most Indian restaurants in Britain are run by highly enterprising immigrants from just one province in Bangladesh—Sylhet. Another odd feature of these Indian restaurants, says Collingham, is that "the food ... took on a life of its own, independent from the food of the Indian subcontinent." So the balti, a staple of British-Indian restaurants, is another dish not found in India; it was invented by Pakistani chefs in Birmingham in the 1980s.
Collingham writes that this innovation is continuing in the Indian restaurants of England, and that new "Indian" dishes will be produced there. Purists in India may scoff at these creations, just as they mock chicken tikka masala. But the inventiveness of British-Indian cooking clearly adds to the appeal of India's culture throughout the world—which can only be good for India's tourism industry. The Hollywood actor Will Smith, recently in Bombay, said that one of the things he wanted to do in India was to taste "authentic chicken tikka masala." You can bet that no one told him he had gone to the wrong country.