My view on genetically-modified crops

I had been writing about food for about a year when I sort of fell into the subject of GMOs; I didn’t expect to, but there is something about the process of writing that leads to discovery and ferment. It was then, and remains now, a politically-charged topic that I was driven to make sense of.

I didn’t have any expertise to add; but I did come to the subject with a unique perspective. I had two long-standing interests, though merely as a layperson—bio-diverse food, and biology (especially genetics) and have read on these subjects obsessively. Professionally, I am a software engineer, so I bring that perspective—one that is not afraid of technology, is aware of its power, but also, that knows (from the inside) how fallible it is; how infinitely perfectible it is. Over the last couple years I have written much and plan to write more; so it is probably time for a statement of what I believe.

I found that the popular debate around biotechnology betrays many misconceptions and shows no awareness of how either genetics or modern farming work (or why).

The first is a category error: genetically-modified crops are treated as a type of food, rather than a description of the process scientists used to create it. Thus, rather than each engineered trait being judged on its own merits, judgments seem to smear across all ‘GMOs’ equally.

Here is what I mean: any downsides of a particular product—it appears that RoundupReady crops have indeed contributed glyophosate-resistant weeds, for instance—is not only treated as a final argument against that particular product, but it is also made to stand-in for the entire technology. I am sure this is familiar to most readers: articles making claims about ‘genetically engineered crops’—here is one example—that then turn out to be about, say, herbicide-resistant crops specifically.

They are also judged with the yardstick of perfection. So any harm that comes to any genetically-modified crop anywhere is treated as a final nail in the biotech coffin, whether or not the trait had anything to do with it. A recent whitefly epidemic in Punjab that destroyed Bt cotton fields, for instance, was touted by critics as an argument against the use of Bt cotton. This is a bit like faulting vaccines for a bicycle accident a child got into on the way home from getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, any benefits that go towards raising yield, reducing chemical pesticides, or making farming more scalable or safe are treated as illegitimate, even as the poorest among us benefit from the lowered cost of food.

Why is this? I believe that some false narratives have taken over the public imagination; and these make it difficult for facts to break through.

False narratives

One is that most people think of farming as continuous with nature, while biotech as a form of human engineering. And they would prefer that engineers not tinker with nature at all.

In my opinion, this view is based on ignorance. Farming has seen plenty of tinkerers, engineers, and nature-meddlers over the millennia; it is just that when a form of engineering becomes widespread, and gets a couple of generations under its belt, it is seen through sepia-toned glasses as part of tradition. This is exactly what happened to another farming technology that one could more properly consider a Frankenfood; it initially raised fears and caused great discomfort among the cognoscenti, but as it took hold, those fears gradually disappeared.

The fact that people do not expect farming to be subject to engineering causes its own blinkered views. When it comes to human engineering, a certain seeking, spiraling improvement is to be expected; early flaws are to be expected. But nature on the other hand is seen as always perfect and any tinkering with it is seen as a fall from that state of original glassy wholeness. This is why, as I pointed out above, people judge biotechnology with the yardstick of perfection.

At heart too is a public mythologizing of the word ‘natural’ that promotes a false dichotomy: that foods either lie on one side of that divide as entirely untouched by human artifice, or on the other, the side of corruption, with industrial ingredients, impenetrable packaging, and refined to the point of pallor and death.

‘GMOs’ in the popular imagination have ended up on the corrupted side of that divide, and hence their many political problems. But what I found, instead, is that biotechnology can produce benefits that environmentalists ought to favor if they look at it dispassionately.

For instance, genetically-modified cotton, used in India since 2002, has allowed farmers to greatly reduce the amount of spraying that they needed before, increased their yield and their incomes. But Western opinion about GMOs in India has become the victim of a third narrative—that of corporate imperialists devastating an ‘old’ country, leading farmers to suicide.

Narratives are stubborn things, specially when they tweak first-world guilt. Neither studies nor data have budged this essentially false narrative.

Looking at the data is one thing; but I had the great privilege of talking in depth with three farmers who shared their stories with me. All three made earnest requests to earnest first-worlders—who they mostly do not have access to—to ditch their false narrative. It isn’t that they do not have problems: but their problems spring from a two-century-long technological upheaval; and while their use of biotechnology cannot solve their deep-seated problems, it can certainly help.

It hasn’t helped that biotech first sprang into public consciousness with their conglomeration of ‘cides’: herbicide-resistant crops, and those that produce their own larvicide, have made up the vast majority of commercially available GMOs. Any word that ends in ‘cide’ of course raises red alerts in people’s minds. In our fear-based society, what most people aren’t aware of is that what can be called ‘poisonous’ is much dependent on how it is used; for instance, both salt and household vinegar are toxic to mammals at lower doses upon ingestion than glyphosate, which is the active chemical in RoundUp. As for the larvicide produced by the Bt crops used by farmers in India, it is a directed poison, only toxic to larva of moths and butterflies upon ingestion, and is safe for other life.

A related narrative is the widespread distrust of corporations. Of course, it is smart to be on guard and never take corporations at their word: they do not have our interests at heart, and their incentives above all are towards making profits. But not everything is a zero-sum game, and this is why it is intellectually lazy to assume that just because a corporation is pushing for a certain outcome, it must therefore be against our interest.

Monsatan

In fact, from what I can tell, distrust of Monsanto in particular has risen to pathological levels, so much that any mention of it can create a reality-distortion field. I have had smart and serious people tell me that somehow Monsanto’s nefarious abilities are so great that it can reach and entirely corrupt people in every corner of the world in every public office, in a completely secret way, and so elaborately that nothing else in their life changes (they don’t start buying yachts for instance) but they start parroting Monsanto’s lines.

Look, this is a conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it suffers from the fallacy that humans are actually not that good at keeping secrets.

This particular conspiracy requires public officials, farmers, scientists, regulators, etc. to be in on it, in a devilish collusion across the globe. Monsanto is a medium-sized company that hires its lobbyists and attempts to muscle its way like all the rest. But I know it hasn’t invented mind-control techniques that turn humans into programmed robots.

This is not to knock the milder form of this distrust, which even I subscribe to: you have to consider financial incentives before you take people at their word. And it isn’t just financial incentives: a scientist whose life’s work is in a certain field is not likely to be objective about the value of that work. But this is why it is important to include people of all stripes in the conversation, including non-expert food bloggers like yours truly.

Removing trust from the usual arbiters leads to radical uncertainty. One has to keep in mind that the value of watchdogs like regulatory agencies, science journals, news reporters, and the like, aside from the expertise that they offer, is not that they are incorruptible, but that they also watch each other. Their incentives lie in the direction of uncovering corruption in each other.

The danger of radical uncertainty is that it makes people susceptible to charlatans, who are usually skilled at flaunting the right symbols and claiming to be the sole purveyor of truth while spouting utter nonsense. Do I have someone in mind? Yes, indeed, I do.

The future

Proponents of biotechnology have often touted its potential to deal with some of our food system’s pressing problems: world hunger; drought; soil salinity. In return, critics have often pooh-poohed these claims, saying that so far, biotech has done nothing but create herbicide-resistant crops and crops that protect themselves from larval damage. Why should we trust that it can do more?

This critique so much misses the point that it boggles the mind. Biotech is a few decades old. Judging it now is akin to judging the silicon revolution in the 1960s, when the norm was lumbering mainframes that filled entire air-conditioned rooms that one spoke to with carefully-spaced holes on punched cards. We can as little imagine today what biotech might lead to as we could imagine smart phones tucked into pockets in the 1960s.

(My archive of writings on this subject can be found through this link in the header.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. What concerns you about genetically-modified food? What would you like to see me write about?

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A thousand names for eggplant

Eggplant display (source: via Wikimedia Commons, user Phoebe (Own work))

Eggplant display (source: via Wikimedia Commons, user Phoebe (Own work))

Writing the eggplant post last week left me in a quandary. Since I live in the US, calling it eggplant seems natural. But then all through my childhood I called it baingan in Hindi and brinjal in English. Some of my readers from the UK will probably want to call it aubergine, while Australians, I hear, prefer the term egg fruit. [Update, 3/22: no, from comments, turns out they call it eggplant too.]

United by a common language indeed!

Well it turns out that the names of this humble vegetable have come about through a global game of Telephone (Chinese Whispers in India) involving empires and migrations of peoples. Sometimes the names have gone around the world and even come back to the source, changed, to go another round.

Intriguing.

Wight, R., Illustrations of Indian botany, or figures illustrative of each of the natural orders of Indian plants, vol. 2: t. 166 (1850) [Goovindo] (Source: http://plantillustrations.org)

Wight, R., Illustrations of Indian botany, or figures illustrative of each of the natural orders of Indian plants, vol. 2: t. 166 (1850) [Goovindo] (Source: http://plantillustrations.org)

The story begins somewhere in India near Burma. Before the Sanskrit speakers and even the Dravidian speakers migrated to India, it was largely occupied by the Munda people. Remnants of the Munda people survive today as tribes in pockets. They were already eating a small, spiny, yellowish fruit that tended to be bitter. Being from the nightshade family, it was also toxic. Over the years they cultivated it to be edible, larger, less spiny, less bitter, and to grow in a season. Once in a while, you still feel super sharp spines on the green tops of eggplants — a reminder of how difficult this vegetable once was to harvest.

The later arrivals to India, the Dravidian-speakers and the Sanskrit speakers, based their words for local vegetables on the original Munda words. The Munda word for eggplant survives as echoes in the Sanskrit vrintaka. In fact, they must have known that the tomato and the eggplant are both from the nightshade family, because the eggplant was known as ‘kanta vrintaka‘ while tomatoes were known as ‘rakta vrintaka‘ — presumably, spiny nightshade and blood nightshade respectively.

Farmworker in Sejwat, Gujarat, India (source: Wikimedia commons, user Arne Hückelheim)

Farmworker in Sejwat, Gujarat, India (source: Wikimedia commons, user Arne Hückelheim)

Another Sanskrit name that eggplant was given was ‘vatingan‘ which comes from its abilities to remove gas (=wind gone, or, more pointedly, fart gone). This word became the ancestor of a number of words used all over India:

  • Hindi: baingan
  • Kannada: badne kai (‘kai’ = vegetable)
  • Telugu: vankaya
  • Bengali: begun
  • Marathi: vangi
  • Sindhi: vangan

Interesting. I love eggplant, but I’ve never thought of it as a substitute for Gas-X. Perhaps I should.

Meanwhile, still in the cloudy ancient past, Persian cooks caught wind of it also. There the Sanskrit word vatingan became transformed into badenjan. Iranian dialects still have a range of similar words for eggplant, showing its ancestry: from the Encyclopedia Iranica, we have badengan, patlejan, vangun (similar to Sindhi) and vayemjun. In Afghanistan, smack in the middle, the word is bademjan.

Now remember that eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, famed producer of toxins (for instance tobacco with nicotine, chilies with capsaicin). And by this point eggplant hadn’t had the track record in cultivation to have the toxins bred out of it. So some of the writings on this vegetable from those ancient days are filled with warnings. Persian writers from the Middle Ages blame eggplant for all kinds of ills from leprosy to the mysterious black bile.

But then, they went on to say, salting it removed those toxins, turning it beneficial, and neutralizing the bile. Could that advice be the reason that we in the modern age of the cultivated, toxin-free eggplant, continue to salt it like dolts? Sorry, I meant to say, the Persian scholars have been hugely influential in our current cuisine.

A dish made from eggplant and tomato -- two nightshades

A dish made from eggplant and tomato — two nightshades

By getting the Persian cooks interested, eggplant hit the big time. The Persian lands were conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century. As food historian Rachel Laudan recounts in this essay, from the eighth century on, as the Islamic empire flourished in Baghdad, their chefs adapted Persian cuisine and spread it to their newly conquered capitals. They conquered Spain across the Mediterranean, and took the eggplant with them. The Arabs called it al-badinjan from the Persian, prefixing it with the Arabic definite article ‘al’. The Spanish dropped the ‘al’, and called it berenjena, as did the Portuguese, with their beringela. But Catalan kept the ‘al’, so eggplant became alberginia.

Now the French, nestled close to the Catalan lands, picked up this vegetable and also this word, but they had difficulty with the ‘al-‘ prefix, and rendered the word as aubergine. This word continues to be used today in France as well as England.

Interestingly, the Persian word for eggplant spread to Europe through two independent routes. West of the Mediterranean, it went to Spain and eventually France as aubergine. But east of the Mediterranean, the Arab conquest of Iran took it to Turkey, then to Greece, Italy and Eastern Europe. From the Encyclopedia Iranica again, “the spread of the word bādenjān can be traced in the Eastern Turkish patingen, Turkish and Russian patinjan, Georgian badnjan, Astrakhan Tatar badarjan or badijan.”

Yes, these are eggplants too. A farmer's market haul

Yes, these are eggplants too. A farmer’s market haul

From that to Greek melitzana, and Latin melongena. Latin being a mother language in its own right, its word for eggplant became another fount of creativity. Linnaes picked it up to give its botanical name: Solanum melongena. Italian still uses the melanzana from the Latin. In fact just the other night I had some delicious melanzane alla Parmigiana. The English picked this up, briefly, as melongene, eventually to drop it in favor of aubergine. But they used that word long enough to bequeath it to Caribbean English as meloongen, as it is still used today.

Still with me? The insanity is not over yet, in fact, it is just beginning. Some in England heard the Latin melongena and took it to be mala insana — mad apple.

Mad Apple? We are a long way from Fart Gone. Are we still talking about Egg Plant? Yes.

As a matter of fact, the Old Foodie website quotes what seems to be the source of this mistranslation to ‘mad apple’ — a treatise known as Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (1710) by William Salmon. The English didn’t just mishear and corrupt melongena as mad apple. They also corrupted Badenjan to Brevun Jains, and the Portuguese beringela to Brown Jolly. It is still known as brown jolly today in the West Indies.

Four kinds of eggplants (source: Thai food blog on Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Four kinds of eggplants (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thai-food-blog/ on Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Now by this point the English were quite peripatetic themselves; rather than sitting in place waiting for fruits to land on their shores, they were out colonizing and bringing back botanical curiosities to grow at home. They had already become acquainted with eggplant through this route, and grew it as an ornamental. In the sixteenth century, it got described by an English herbalist known as John Gerard as ‘having the bignesse of a Swans egge’. This is probably the source of its current name, eggplant.

However, at this point the English did not consider it food, being from the nightshade family; just like Persian scholars from a thousand years ago, they warned of its propensity to cause disease, everything from cancer to piles to bad breath. ‘Doubtlesse these Apples have a mischevous qualitie,” John Gerard wrote, “It is therefore better to esteem this plant and have it in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, than for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.’

This name, eggplant, is the one that the English took with them to America and Australia. It must be that they finally learned to enjoy it as food from the French, hence their word for it came from the French also — the elegant aubergine. (There are other examples of this Frenchification of food words: for instance, the English have a perfectly decent word that means ‘cow’ — it is, ‘cow’. But when they used the cow as food, they called it ‘beef’ from the French ‘boeuf’.)

Now, we are ready to come full circle, where I began, and where we began, back to India. The Portuguese colonized India in the sixteenth century, and brought their beringela back home. Either the Indians, or the later colonizers, the English, turned this into brinjal. This is the word that still survives today, as an English word, in India, Malaysia, and elsewhere. We think of this as an English word, but none of the English-speaking countries actually use it.

Notes: Eggplant was actually domesticated in China very early as well, in 500 BC; but I did not cover its trajectory through those lands, mostly because I lack familiarity with the languages. Also, I linked to my sources throughout, and my information is only as good as theirs is. 

Hungry for more eggplant names? Here you go. Not satisfied? What’s it going to take? Here you go.

Tl;dr? Here you go.

Eggplant words

Eggplant words

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In my kitchen of #cookingfail

Ship FAIL

Shipment FAIL

The Internet has spawned its own jargon. One of these is the word ‘Fail’ attached as critique to a thought or an image. The classic is the image of a container ship running aground, boxes awry, with the words ‘Shipment Fail’ emblazoned on it. It originated from people poking fun at a late 90’s Japanese video game that used the phrase ‘You Fail It’ as a game over message. It has now become a way to simply interject disdain, without having to explain anything, while nudging and pointing at an unfortunate scene. The anonymity of the Internet sometimes encourages the worst of humanity, allowing one to mock the Anonymous Other without the moderating influence of having to do it in their presence.

In other words, I love it!! Let’s get started! Here is a litany of unfortunate scenes in my kitchen this month, for the IMK party hosted at the lovely Fig Jam and Lime Cordial blog.

One. Broil the Handle.

Broil the handle

Broil the handle

Starving for an eggless omelette made from chickpea flour, but really, starving in general, I brusquely threw some flour in with some water and neglected to measure amounts. Who needs to measure stuff when one’s instinct is so fine-tuned, I thought. Well, the batter was too wet; it wouldn’t set on the stovetop; so I popped it under the broiler for a few, forgetting that plastic and broiler don’t go well together. Result: flames (I apologize I couldn’t take pictures of the flames, since I was too busy dousing them); and next, ashes.

Two. Disembowel the Bread.

Disemboweled bread

Disemboweled bread

Deeply cut slice from disemboweled bread

Sawtooth slice from disemboweled bread

I usually shape the loaf and score it just fine. This time I tried a new method of shaping that involved making a sort of purse with infinitely rolled in edges. Well, you see the result. The process of baking made this loaf sort of explode from the inside and spill all its guts out. Still tasted fine, though.

Three. Flop the Yeast

Poof and its flat

Poof and its flat

Dosa batter is risen with the wild lactic acid bacteria found on the beans. While sourdough bread is risen with a culture of wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria. Slight difference; so shouldn’t sourdough starter work on dosa batter? Well, you can’t reason with the microbes, I found. I tried this experiment, and yes, there was rising activity; but here is what I found.

Bubbles arose within a day. But instead of bubbles foaming nicely everywhere, they seemed to explode out of the middle, as you can see. It smelled nicely sour, but perhaps a bit too sour? Still hopeful, I tried making crepes (dosas) and cakes (idlis) with it. That’s when I realized what had happened: there had been so much microbial activity that the thing was as sour as a lemon and all the bubbles had foamed up and gone, so instead of a nicely risen idli, I got a flat goo. Unfortunate.

Note: This was supposed to be my entry for the first ever Novice Gardener challenge at the lovely blogger Angie’s place. The rules stated it must use yeast and herbs. I used both; consider this my late, rueful, tail-between-my-legs entry.

Four. Dough-rolling Disaster

Sticky dough on waxed paper

Sticky dough on waxed paper

Sticky dough shreds waxed paper

Sticky dough shreds waxed paper

I have been doing this for years, you would think I would have figured it out. While making this weekend staple breakfast from my childhood, I found that the dough had turned out a little too sticky. Instead of doing the smart thing and adding more flour, I thought I would try rolling it out between waxed paper sheets. This is the sort of thing that is supposed to work, right? Well I did get the dough rolled into a nice flat circle, but when I tried to peel the waxed paper off, I realized that the two sheets of paper and my dough circle had fused together into a single mass, and there was no separating them, under pain of death. You can see what happened — the paper ripped apart rather than let go. I had a miserable breakfast.

Five. No gluten FAIL

Flatbread that WILL NOT hold together. Fail.

Sorghum flatbread that WILL NOT hold together.

Falls apart more while on griddle.

Falls apart more while on griddle.

Brunt crumbs. Fail

Burnt crumbs. Fail

Ugh. Epic fail.

Ugh. Epic fail.

I am concerned that they may take away my Indian Food Blogger card if I admit this; but I am a disaster at making gluten-free rolled out flatbreads. The other day I tried doing this with sorghum (jowar). Sorghum has no gluten. Gluten is what holds bread together and allows it to be rolled out. How on earth is one supposed to do this?

Other food bloggers seem to have no problem with it. There must be a secret Twitter group that I don’t belong to where they dispense these secrets. Here’s a blogger (Chef Divya) doing a millet flatbead. Here is a blogger (Food Flavor Fascination) doing a sorghum one. And look what I got. Urrgh.
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In my kitchen of alternative uses (May 2014)

Centenarian

My 100th post! (Centenarian from socyberty.com)

I often read the ‘In My Kitchen‘ posts hosted over at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial and am always impressed by the beauty in them. The sense of style, the creativity in food on display there is quite inspiring. I feel like such a clod in comparison! Well, clods like us have our uses too. I would like to own my useful cloddiness.

For my 100th post (purely fortuitous, this) I looked around my kitchen and thought I’d talk about some of the gadgets, widgets, tools, thingamajigs, etc., that I found the most useful this month.

But here is the catch. Clearly a post that goes something like — ‘The Fridge! it keeps things cool. The Stove for cooking’ — would get boring really fast. So the catch is that I want to talk about 10 things in my kitchen that I find tremendously useful in unintended ways. That is, in ways that the manufacturer did not intend.

ONE. Oven light as yogurt maker: Here is a secret — you do not need a yogurt maker to make excellent yogurt at home. If your oven light works, leave yogurt to set all night in the oven with the light on. It shields from drafts and creates a gently toasty environment for the lacto-beasties to get to work. Here is more about the process. You can also use it to speed up the rise of your dough for bread.

An 'X' to remind not to turn on the oven while yogurt is setting

An ‘X’ to remind not to turn on the oven while yogurt is setting

TWO. Oven timer for good parenting: Readers who are parents might concur that parenting is a lot about negotiation. I let you play for 5 minutes if you jump into the bath right after. Read a book for 15 minutes exactly, then it’s homework time. And so forth. I avoid endless arguments like — ‘that wasn’t ten minutes! That was just ONE minute!’ by using the kitchen timer on my oven. And this is how little my kid trusts me — she has to be the one to set the timer. The advantage of the oven timer is that it is at her face level and is easy to set and easy to read. And my, the beep is loud.

Get into the bath, Now!

Get into the bath, Now!

THREE. Sushi serving platter as spoon rest: If you read this post of mine you might know that I scorn the wimpy spoon-rests one can buy at the store. The aspect ratio of the perfect spoon-rest in my mind is a wide and not very deep rectangle so several spoons can be rested on it on just their bowl parts. So I use sushi platters instead. They can be quite decorative. As is the one pictured, a birthday gift from my husband.

Sushi platter as spoon rest

Sushi platter as spoon rest

FOUR. Compost pail as utensil holder: Speaking of wimpy…the usual utensil holders available from, say, William Sonoma, are completely inadequate for the number of spatulas, slotted spoons, wooden spoons, tongs and turners that I need near my stovetop. So I use one of those ceramic compost pails which really are a bit too decorative to consign to collecting rubbish anyway.

Compost pail as utensil holder

Compost pail as utensil holder

FIVE. Coffee grinder as spice grinder: Buying pre-ground spices is a mug’s game because of their propensity to turn into cardboard (turmeric is an exception). One must have freshly-ground spices, but how?! The mortar and pestle is one option, but for a busy weeknight dinner one needs to unleash the grinding power of a thousand suns. In other words, the electrical coffee grinder. Except mine is always used for spices and is always situated on the counter.

Spice grinder

Spice grinder

SIX. Lobster tongs to clean sink traps: My husband came home one day with these precious little lobster tongs that you pinch with forefinger and thumb to pry out whatever one pries out from lobsters. They are about 3 inches long. Given that we never make lobster at home, I thought it was an odd choice. But he knew they would be useful some day, he just didn’t know how. And they are! You know that gunk that seems to collect in sink traps that one is loath to touch, and yet pick out one must? Lobster tongs to the rescue. One has to only once draw out a long hair with gunk all over it and drop it in the bin with one of these to get how useful they are.

Lobster tongs to pick out gunk

Lobster tongs to pick out gunk

SEVEN. Chopsticks as general purpose thingies: Chopsticks are some of the most useful devices known to man. Of course, I know that upwards of a billion people use it every day to eat their meals. But that’s not what I use them for. Instead, they are perfect for a number of kitchen tasks: pushing ground spices through a funnel; stirring flour and water in preparation for making the dough; making little ditches in soil for sowing your seeds.

Stirring flour and water with a chopstick

Stirring flour and water with a chopstick

Pushing through a funnel with a chopstick

My 8-year-old helping with a chopstick

EIGHT. Egg-shell cartons for sprouting seeds: Purely aspirational, this one, but can I please enter it anyway? Please? This idea has been on my mind for years. Imagine neat rows of 12 egg carton ‘pots’ with soil placed in each scoop, and seeds sown in each. Then when it is time to plant, cut the scoops away from each other and the whole thing can go in the garden bed. No need to transplant.

Saved egg cartons waiting forlornly for carrot seeds to be sown

Saved egg cartons waiting forlornly for carrot seeds to be sown

NINE. Coffee cone and filter for oil: There — you’ve done it again, you went and deep-fried something. Delicious, wasn’t it? And now what? Do you throw the oil away? No, you send it through a coffee cone with a coffee filter neatly placed in it, while the filtered oil drains into a jar. It will take hours, but you have time. The result is cleaned oil that you can use again and particulate gunk that you discard.

TEN. Spouse as dish cleaner and lab rat: When I married one of these I could not have conceived of the many alternative uses it has. Its kitchen uses were certainly not on my mind at the time of the courtship. But it turns out, given that one is a cook, the spouse can make a great dish cleaner. Also, my kitchen being a bit of a lab, it sure is useful to have the spouse be the experimental animal.

Hubby (he does in fact have a head)

Hubby (he does in fact have a head)

 

 

Getting off the curry train

India

I’m sorry to go all dramatic so soon in the blog post but do you know how there was this guy called Captain Ahab who had sworn revenge on a whale? Sometimes I feel like that when accosted with the word ‘curry’. Seems like an innocuous enough word…and descriptive, so why do I hate it so much? Let me tell you why. It is not descriptive and it is certainly not innocuous. It obfuscates, mystifies and conflates things. And if you think about it, that is exactly the opposite of what language is supposed to do.

Why do I hate the word?

I hate it because it is a word the British made up from half-heard scraps to vaguely signify the entire cuisine of a sub-continent. It is sometimes used as a generic term, but it promotes the notion that all Indians eat a single dish with a single spice mix in it. I hate it more when Indians use it to communicate with English-speakers. Sorry, people. I hate it.

Some ‘Curry’ meanings

People use this word in different senses.

  1. Curry as a Particular Dish: Do you make Curry, people will ask me, or claim to love Curry. I don’t have to spend too much time on this meaning because clearly, Indians don’t all just eat one dish, all billion of us, day in and day out, week after week.

  2. Gloopy Spicy Dish: Moving on. Some people use it to mean: any gloopy, reddish brown, spicy dish. Then the question arises: how many spices? If you stick a bay leaf into a beef stew does it become a curry? It is gloopy and reddish-brown. What about gumbo with its filé? Some Indian dishes may be green, non-gloopy, with merely garlic and mustard seeds in it, is that still a curry? I believe that people who use it in this sense are afflicted with Indian-Restaurant-itis. It is the condition of being mainly familiar with Indian food through the means of Indian restaurants. It is not their fault — it is that Indian restaurants outside India (with a few exceptions) insist on putting everything into everything and turning everything into an indistinguishable, reddish-brown mess. That thing — that indistinguishable mess — is a curry.

  3. Asian Saucy Dishes: Sometimes the word is used to identify dishes from all over South and South-East Asia that consist of some kind of spicy, saucy thing with floaters in it. Here I must simply plead lack of clarity. That subsumes so much variety as to not be a very useful word. It is as if all baked items from the Western world — including bread, muffins, pies, cakes, croissants — all were called ‘bakies’.

  4. A Single Spice: People will often ask me if a certain dish has curry in it. Needless to say, there isn’t a single spice called ‘curry’. Yes, there is a herb used all over South and Central India called ‘curry leaf’ or more properly, ‘kari leaf’ (Murraya koenigii). Red herring alert! This herb does not make your dish spicy. It adds a sort of herbal or grassy flavor to it. It has nothing to do with the spice mix sold as ‘curry powder’. It is not the main ingredient of it, or even an ingredient. In fact, you can’t use these leaves in their dry form at all, they do nothing. They must be used fresh and thrown into hot oil to get their flavor into food. They add a very subtle flavor, and in my opinion, are better left out than substituted.

Curry leaves

Curry leaves

  1. A Particular Spice Mix: As a spice mix called ‘curry powder’. Far be it from me to deny that such a spice mix exists — you could easily go to any grocery store aisle and prove me wrong. I must only insist that this spice mix is British, not Indian.

curry powder

During the Raj the British brought tea to India and took away a notion of savory dishes made of a mélange of onions, ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. As this blog post explores, cookbooks from the seventeen hundreds had started to experiment with Indian ways of cooking, say, chicken, using onions, ginger and turmeric. By the eighteen hundreds though, a standardized curry powder had replaced the powdered ingredients.

Here is a very early advertisement for Curry Powder: This was being sold to households as ‘exceedingly pleasant and healthful’. Any dish made that used it, apparently became a curry.

First British advert for curry powder from The British Library

First British advert for curry powder from The British Library

Needless to say, Indian food does not use a single spice mix; or necessarily a specific mix at all, most of the time, spices are thrown in whole. Some famous dishes (e.g. sambhar; pav bhaji) have gotten attached to their specific combinations; other specific mixes are used for special needs (garam masala; chaat masala). Often times the spice mix is a paste. Most of the time there is no mix at all, but just spices.

So what does curry mean — do you see what I mean by obfuscation and lack of clarity?

In which I play whack-a-mole

One of the reasons the word ‘curry’ has become such a fixture is that weirdly, there are a number of words all over the subcontinent that vaguely sound like ‘curry’. This makes people nod happily at the word, thinking it is an Anglicization of the one that is most familiar in their language. Most of the words below, by the way, are mostly unrelated to each other, and most have at one time or another claimed to have been the origin of ‘curry’.

A. Kadhi: There are the many ‘kadhi‘ preparations in the north which involve roasting chickpea flour and yogurt. This preparation is not highly seasoned, usually, but rather, mild and yogurty. This comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “boiled stuff“.

B. Tarkaari: In Nepal or thereabouts, tarkaari is the vegetable side that accompanies the daily meal of rice and lentils.

C. Kari: Tamil has a word kari which means black or blackened. Over time this came to mean grilled; then, stir-fried. Tamil uses two types of ‘r’ sounds, this one is the softer one.

D. KaRi: This is the second, unrelated Tamil word with the harsher ‘R’ which means ‘meat’.

E. Carriel: The Portuguese colonized India before the English did, and by the sixteenth century they were claiming that Indians ate something called Carriel. This is reported by a Dutch traveler named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, He spent time in Goa and this is how he describes food there: “Most of their fish, is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel, which is their daily meat.” Is this from the Tamil kari meaning blackened or grilled? or from the Tamil kaRi meaning meat? This word, Carriel, is still used in Goa in a sense similar to Curry.

There is a pervasive piece of misinformation that first appeared in the  Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary in 1886, and subsequently has been spread throughout the Interwebs by Wikipedia: this is that Curry comes from the Tamil word ‘kari’ meaning sauce. As I listed above, there is no word ‘kari’ that means sauce in Tamil. Since English does not have the other, harsher ‘r’, we do not know which ‘kari’ they meant.

On the other hand, perhaps the English were already experimenting with ‘curries’ before they ever came to India….

The Forme of Cury

The Forme of Cury

F. Cury: Way back in the 14th century, a cookbook published by King Richard II’s cooks, which contained 196 recipes, was called ‘The Forme of Cury‘. This was way back before colonization ever happened…this word is from the French root ‘cuire’, the same as ‘cuisine’.

Interesting. The mystery deepens.

Here is an article that delves deeper into the history of the word. And another. And another.

So what word to use instead?

Ah, language. I tend to use the word ‘gravy‘ for wetter preparations, such as ‘potatoes in tomato-garlic gravy‘. This is the word we used at home. For drier preparations, I might use the word stir-fry or sauté. In general though, most of these dishes use the method of braising, so that word is usually fitting. ‘Stew’ works too. Spicy stew perhaps?

Help, I feel another rant coming on. ‘Spicy’ does not mean ‘hot’ as in chili hot. Somebody stop me please.