A White Curry Professor Taught Me That White People Ruin Everything
Any curry with mayonnaise and whipped cream is not OK.
All photos by Lindsey Neely
I'll admit, when I walked into Professor Dan Bender's kitchen at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, I was bristling a little.
To state the obvious: Bender is white. I am brown. And he was there to teach me how to make curry. I felt defensive knowing that I was likely going to be out-browned by this cherub white academic, on camera no less.
I came across Bender, a food history professor, in a Toronto Star article that reported on his curry midterm. My first thought was, should I shade him on Twitter for cultural appropriation?
In truth though, I wasn't offended. But as a brown person who doesn't have my mother's cooking savvy, I thought having Bender show me the curry-scented ropes was an opportunity for good content and for us to chat about the complex history of curry and colonialism.
First, some background. My family is Indo-Fijian, which means they are from Fiji (a beautiful group of South Pacific islands made popular by overpriced water), but are ethnically Indian. How did Indians get to Fiji? Well, the British took them over as indentured servants to work in sugar cane fields.
Growing up in Vancouver, I ate curry regularly. Every time there was a holiday, like Christmas or Easter, my family, on my grandfather's orders, would go to a farm and slaughter an animal (usually a goat or a chicken) and curry it for dinner. While I've always thought curry was delicious, it certainly was never cool. It has a pungent smell and it yellows your fingernails, for starters. I only remember taking curry to school a couple of times, much preferring to eat Lunchables, SunnyD, and whatever other processed crap white kids would approve of.
The racism around curry was internalized as well. I remember when I moved to Edmonton for work, my mom warned me not to get a brown roommate because she was concerned my apartment would then stink.
As I got older, curry gained more acceptance. Even my most racist friends became obsessed with butter chicken (the brown equivalent of a California roll), which I didn't know was a thing until I found out about it from white people.
Sadly, I never learned how to cook curry, which is mainly because I can't cook anything. And now that I live in Toronto, across the country from my family, I barely even eat it anymore. I hate premixed curry powders and pastes because frankly they just can't compete with the curries I grew up eating.
This brings me back to Bender (who is quite charming for the record).
When I first got into his kitchen, he told me the earliest references to "chicken curry" are in English cookbooks from the 1700s.
"So you're saying the English made it up though? They stole it," I replied. Bender said he preferred "colonized," which I pointed out is basically a euphemism for theft.
Bender told me that we would be making "Coronation chicken," which is as white as it sounds. In fact, it's a dish that was served to Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation in 1953.
"The dish features chicken, mayonnaise, and curry powder and a few other ingredients that might surprise you," he explained as I grimaced.
"First the English develop this taste for Indian food and why not, it's delicious," he continued, "and they take the flavours but start changing it to their own styles of cookings… This is colonial curry."
The dish itself is so simple that even I would be able to pull it off.
You grill a chicken breast, cut it up, then saute onions in oil, add red wine, tomato paste, and curry powder, and coat the chicken in the resulting sauce. Here's where it gets really blasphemous: You then add a shitload of mayonnaise and whipped cream and mix it all together.
Bender had me dump it onto a fancy silver platter on a bed of greens, with three dried apricots on top—about as effective as slapping lipstick on a pig.
When we started out, I was puzzled as to why Bender chose this whitewashed, garbage "curry" instead of a traditional and tasty dish. But as the lesson went on, I realized he was trying to make a point.
Bender asked me why I thought the English were still eating curry in 1953, five years after India had gained independance from Britain, and, "why do they think it's OK to add whipped cream?" At some point, he said, they came to feel like "'We can do this better than the Indians.' They want the ingredients, they want some of the flavours, but they're no longer interested in cooking Indian food."
What a perfect metaphor for modern-day xenophobia, I thought.
But here's the thing: they can't do it better. I ate that coronation chicken and it sucked. I was hungry—I skipped breakfast—so I admit I took several bites more than I otherwise would've. And it tasted like a bland, chicken salad with the tiniest hint of curry powder.
Ultimately, what I took away from Bender was the reassurance that while white people can take whatever they want from other cultures, that doesn't mean they won't fuck it up. And in this case, they really and truly did.
I left that kitchen with my tummy still empty, but my pride (and self-righteousness) in tact. And then I ordered Indian takeout for dinner.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.