Curry without chillies and hot spices?

by AFP/Jay Shankar, Dec 6, 2006 | Destinations: India / Bangalore

Bangalore, India, Nov 3, 2006 - Fashion model Divya Chauhan stands at the stove in her downtown residence in India's southern high-tech hub and uses a non-stick pan to simmer an old-fashioned curry recipe devoid of hot chillies.

The 31-year-old, wearing a green apron, says she is one among many of a newly affluent generation in India making curries the way they tasted before chillies and hot spices were introduced to the subcontinent.

Ironically, the trend has grown as lightly-spiced Western dishes gain favour in India, she said.

"Your neighbour goes to a fancy restaurant and recommends an Italian dish. I try that at home and I am tempted to use some of the sauces in my Indian cooking. That too brings down the hot content in the spices," she said.

"But the major challenge facing Indian women staying in cities today is that they do not know how to cook their traditional food as they are either working or are not interested," Chauhan said.

"They cook in a jiffy with minimal spices such as hot chillies. I used to cook with a guilt feeling in my mind because I know my daughter did not have the same tasty food which my mother used to cook," she said.

Nutrition experts said exposure to Western cuisines and changing lifestyles and dietary habits of urban Indians are pushing curry sauces towards the old gentle melange of spices instead of toungue-burning concoctions generally associated with takeaways in Britain or rural cooking in India.

Chillies are not native to India, and likely came with the Portuguese in the 17th century. Easy to grow and a cheap way to flavour basic foods, they quickly found favour throughout the country.

India now accounts for 25 percent of the world's chilli production and exports the firey gems as far away as the US, Canada, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Germany.

Traditionally, Indian curry powder did not contain chillies, rather than a frangrant blend of turmeric, cumin and coriander seeds, fenugreek, cloves, ginger, mustard seeds, cardamon, cinnamon and black pepper.

These spices come from aromatic plants or dried bark, buds, roots, fruits, seeds and berries native to the country.

"The hot chilles and pepper which make your eyes red are certainly out because people in the cities are now exposed to milder foreign cuisines," said M. Raghunath, deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, a government-funded body.

"More of Western culture is creeping into our food habits," Raghunath told AFP. "You can have a choice of Italian dishes, Thai, Korean or even Japanese cuisines. These dishes are not as hot as Indian curry."

"So, unconsciously, we are now leaving out the hot stuff in the cities," he said. "The Indian rural cuisine though retains the same level of hot spices."

Traditional Indian curry uses small amounts of local spices heated in oil to release the aroma and flavour with combinations used in various dishes across regions.

Sheela Krishnaswamy, the managing director of nutrition consulting firm NICHE in Bangalore with more than two dozen information technology clients, said people living in cities have switched to gentler spice because health is now a bigger issue as the pace of life speeds up.

"Hot Indian curry is slowly fading out as it causes health problems such as acidity and indigestion. They occur because most of us skip meals and do not have proper food at a given time due to odd office timings," Krishnaswamy said.

"Another factor is that earlier the spices were made fresh at home. Now it is the age of 'ready mixes' and masalas (mixtures of spices) which can be purchased over the counter," she said.

The change has been more noticable in southern India, rather than the north where food has Persian and Afghan influences and is usually served with traditional flat breads and includes heavy meats covered in rich sauces.

But in the south, rice is the staple carbohydrate and curries are pulse-based. South Indians make rice pancakes stuffed with potatoes and vegetables, and rice dumplings served with sambar, a South Indian curry.

Sandeep Kachroo, executive chef of The Taj West End hotel in southern Bangalore, said there were more than 6,000 varieties of curries made across India, but local customers are consistently asking for blander offerings.

"We have toned down the spice levels," Kachroo said. "It has changed along with lifestyles."

Kachroo also said that Indians have lost the ability to handle hot spices.

"People are becoming more stylised. They want their food to be served in style, which means in smaller quantities and not so hot," he said.

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