Lately, I have enjoyed reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s book Curry: A Global History. I love cooking and I really, really love history, so this has been an oddly fascinating topic.
Curry is the rare dish that you can pretty much find anywhere in the world. Where we live in Florida, food from the Caribbean is ubiquitous. And in our town in particular – which has a significant Portuguese population – anything even remotely connected to Portugal is everywhere. This includes food from areas of India that had been occupied by the Portuguese after Vasco da Gama. If you go to a Caribbean restaurant, you can order a goat curry. If you go to the Indian restaurant, you can order a goat curry. If you go to an Asian grocery store here, you see Caribbean food brands.
It might not seem all that interesting on its face that folks in the Caribbean ended up with curry. The Caribbean was (and still is) the crossroads of the world. But it turns out that curry did not exactly end up in the Caribbean via trade routes.
Curry ended up in the former American colonies as relatively wealthy Americans imitated everything the fashionable elites in Britain did. As Britain had taken over much of India, Indian textiles and spices became popular in Britain, and they simultaneously became popular in the United States.
Not so with the Caribbean, however. It was the Indians themselves who brought curry to the Caribbean.
With the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and slavery altogether in 1833, there was suddenly a labor shortage in the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, and South Africa. (The last thing former slaves wanted to do after the abolition of slavery was return to the grueling work of a sugar plantation.) According to Sen, the British government established offices in (then) Calcutta and Madras to recruit Indians as indentured laborers. These laborers would agree to contracts of five to ten years, have their basic needs met, and receive small wages. At the end of their contract, they would receive either free passage home or free land in the region where they were working. Most of them chose free land.
As a result of this arrangement, Caribbean islands that had a British presence now have a lot of people with Indian origin. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, nearly half of the inhabitants have ancestors from India. Ditto for Guyana. A small portion of Jamaica is of Indian origin.
On their arrival, immigrants received daily rations of rice, dal [lentils, peas, or chickpeas], coconut oil or ghee [clarified butter], sugar and salt, turmeric and sometimes salted or dried fish and onions. Substitution was essential, since ingredients such as curry leaves, fresh coriander and mint were not grown locally. The substitute for coriander is a local herb called shado(w) beni that grows wild in drainage ditches. The chili pepper used in Trinidadian curries it the fiery scotch bonnet, so-called because it looks like a little pleated bonnet. In places of spinach-like greens called ‘sag’ in India, Trinidadians and Jamaicans use callaloo, the leaf of the dasheen plant (a form of taro). Callaloo is also the name of a soup cooked with coconut milk, crab, okra, chilies, and herbs.
Each of these countries vary the meats that are used in their curry. Fish curry is popular in Guyana. Jamaicans love goat curry.