Curry in Australian History: In or Out of Place?

Freida Moran

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

‘Eating habits’, it has been observed, ‘symbolize and mark the boundaries of cultures’; but it should be remembered they also mark the liminal spaces where these delineations break down.[1] Curry in Australian history has occupied this grey area, sometimes positioned as exotic and other, sometimes as ordinary, and often, a bit of both.[2]

Beginning briefly with an explanation of my conception of curry, I turn to describe the arrival of curry in Australia, and its establishment in local conditions. I will use a 1967cookery liftout to argue and demonstrate how curry was simultaneously conceptualised as ‘in’ and ‘out’ of place in Australia, and examine how South East Asian dishes, under the name ‘curry’, entered Australian food culture.

Curry is understood here as anything that uses the term – I’m interested in what, in the words of Allen S Weiss, it means for a ‘version of a dish to appear at [a particular] time and place’; rather than what curry is.[3] While its origins are much contested, my understanding of curry is founded in Cecilia Leong-Salobir’s argument that the foodstuff emerged through a process of ‘negotiation and collaboration’between Anglo Indian and Indigenous Indian populations during Britishcolonial occupation of India.[4] It has been called the ‘master trope’ of colonialism and ‘a colonial endpoint: everything ended up in it, and it remains infinitely changeable…’.[5]

Curry, as a hybrid dish, presents an exemplar of the multiple negotiations of power and influence in colonial exchanges. From India and Britain to Australia, curry is significant in its ability to illuminate the entanglement of the everyday with important historical issues such as empire, race, class and identity.                           

Advertisements from newspapers reveal that curry powder was sold in the Australian colonies at least as early as 1813, and ‘curry dishes’ from 1806.[6] Curry powder, likely imported from both Britain and India, became a regular feature of 19th century promotions, evidently a selling point.  While curry paste arrived in the early 1830s, powder remained Australia’s preferred means of currying well into the 20th century.

Demonstrating the extent to which it quickly became a common dish in a burgeoning Australian culinary repertoire, curry was used to absorb unfamiliar indigenous meats. As Barbara Santich has observed, it was an ‘agent of transformation’: a method and flavour profile used to render the unfamiliar into the familiar, producing culturally acceptable dishes such as ‘curried wattlebirds’.[7] Some notable Australians, such as writer Marcus Clarke and ‘culinary crusader’ Philip E Muskett, even proposed curry (pre-Federation), as a national dish and the basis of a ‘regenerated food system’.[8] Curry had a firm place in Australian culture, and was worthy of being considered part of an Australian identity.

Two locally blended curry powders, ‘Keen’s’ and ‘Robert Lavers’, won ‘first class prize’ medals at the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition, reinforcing curry as a known, familiar and ordinary food.[9] The exhibition was designed to promote Australian unity through ‘capitalism and race’, with the federation of the colonies expected to follow closely.[10] That Tasmania and Victoria exhibited the spice blend shows curry as being absorbed into a developing national cuisine, and erodes neat delineations between a white Australia and ‘a colonial other’. The presence of curry powder in this site confirms the hybridity and fluidity of developing Australian national identities.

The examples I have given here highlight the extent to which curry was embedded in Australian food culture during the 19th century. I should make it clear, however, that although ‘many people [were] fond of curry’, as one 1888 ‘Ladies Column’ articulated, ‘that popular Indian dish’ was never seamlessly ‘in place’ as other introduced foodstuffs became, for example, tea or spaghetti bolognaise.[11]  

Into the 20th Century, curry, in various forms, was present in every one of thirty-seven cookbooks examined. Even when not suggested as a dish, curry powder was still a presumed pantry item, used in preserves such as chutney, or a ‘sprinkle’ on ‘hash on toast’.[12] Most frequently, curry barely rated a second mention: it was known, accepted and widely eaten. Yet at other times, curry was discussed at length: what it was, what it was not, and how it should be served. Meanings attached to curry became more fixed, settling around the identifiable and overlapping themes of: concerns around authenticity; a trend of sweeter curries, and a growing sophistication. Across these themes, ideas of ordinary and exotic manifested to different degrees.

Examining ideas of, and recipes for, curry in the Australian Women’s Weekly (AWW)through the 1960s – when one in four homes received the magazine and it had an ‘immense’ impact on food fashions, as Susan Sheridan has argued – shows ideas of curry were stable, and followed an established template for most of the decade.[13] In 1961, a Leila C Howard ‘Curries’ page, recipes were reliant on curry powder and used only familiar ingredients, despite anticipating future trends by naming steak curries ‘Siam’ and ‘Cambodian’.[14] Fresh ginger did make more frequent appearances, and by 1963, an ‘Indian Curry Buffet’ presented quite sophisticated combinations of spices under names such as ‘vindaloo’.[15] In 1965, however, curries were again simply ‘moist’ or ‘dry’ in a one-page special.[16]

But in 1967 a definitive shift is evident. The AWW published a booklet devoted to ‘The World’s Best Curries’.[17] By deconstructing this document, I will draw out several themes that characterised how meanings of curry were both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of place in Australian food culture, and show a broadening of the Australian conception of curry.

From the outset, curry is visually positioned as exotic and other. The cover is dominated by an ornate brass serving dish, laden with curry. Rich, golden tones saturate the photograph; the background is split between an opulent drape and a white tiger skin. Inside, a section entitled, ‘How to Eat Curries’, implies special cultural knowledge was required to consume the foodstuff: – ‘for Westerners…a fork and spoon is best – not just a fork’.[18] While representing curries as foreign and distinct, the lift-out nonetheless displays distinctive hallmarks of how curry had been interpreted and embedded within Australian culinary culture.

Here, I’m interested in the commonalities and differences with other curry recipes published in Australia. Ingredients demonstrated a growing sophistication, using many individual spices, both fresh and dry, as well as curry powder and paste, although only as a ‘starter’.[19] ‘Malaysian Lobster Curry’ included the common Australian (and British) addition of fruit jam or jelly, in this case plum.[20] A twist on an Australian favourite, the curried potato salad, blends curry powder with French dressing.[21] The ‘Ceylonese Fruit Curry’, with tinned pineapple, currants, sultanas, banana and apple, was characteristic of the trend towards ‘sweet’ Australian curry recipes, in both popular and high culture.[22] Indeed, a similar recipe, but with meat, was aptly deemed the ‘Australian Curry’ in one community cookbook from 1981.[23]

Another favourite method of the British and Australian colonists, using curry to ‘Transform Leftovers’, is given a section, featuring red currant jelly in both recipes.[24] Suggested accompaniments range from Bombay duck and sambols to bacon bits and crushed potato chips.[25]            

The curry liftout concludes with an advertisement for Keen’s Curry, a product first blended in Tasmania during the 1860s.[26] The orange tin surrounded by spices, fruit, and rice, reassuring readers of the acceptability of its ‘rich true Indian flavour’, in an increasingly complex culinary world. Like many of the recipes, Keen’s offered a bridge between the exotic and the familiar: a connector, if you like: a way ‘in’ to culture. Stepping back, the booklet opened with a country by country guide, ‘where they originated’, written by ‘Tiger’ Ady of Sydney restaurant ‘Bengali’, giving detailed cultural and historical information on food practices in countries such as Burma, Malaysia and Thailand.[27]

The booklet signalled a shift in ideas of curry in Australia. Influenced by a vast array of factors, the nation was increasingly engaged with its Asian neighbourhood, resulting in a broadening of culinary culture. Part of this was the incorporation of dishes from cuisines other than India, under the label ‘curry’ – think Thai Green and Rendang. In this way, the history of curry in Australia diverged from that of Britain’s. To a degree, this naming of South East Asian dishes as ‘curry’ reflects an imprecise colonial ‘flattening’ of foreign cuisines.[28] As suggested, however, Australians had, when they did discuss it, conceptualised curry as tied to India, if not British India, at least until the second half of the 20th century.

 More important in this shift, I argue, was the publication of two cookbooks concerning curry in Australia, and the AWW liftout, exemplifying a heightened engagement with South-East Asia. The first, in 1968 by Doris M Ady (the wife of Tiger Ady), was entitled Curries from the Sultan’s Kitchen; the second, more renown, in 1972, was by Charmaine Solomon: the South East Asian Cook Book, in which curries were also central. These cookbooks were accompanied and followed by other forms of print media, disseminating knowledge about regional Asian culinary culture more broadly.

The changing nature of Australian society and food culture was observed by Ady: Her book was written for the ‘Australian and New Zealand housewife…[who] has received strangers from all over the world into her family circle, and has been quick to profit from the experience.’ Ady hoped her work would ‘open up to her the infinite connotations of the word ‘curry’, and introduce to her the art of spice cooking’.[29]

Solomon articulated her conception of curry, ‘[a]verage Westerners, asked what food they associate with India, will name curry. But every spiced dish is not a curry, and curry is not just one dish’, and warned against throwing ‘everything’ (namely fruits) in.[30] She went onto describe other food cultures from the region, for instance: ‘A Burmese meal is most often plain white rice served with curries and balachaung’, although ‘[c]urry powders are unknown in Burmese cooking.’[31]

 These women, and Tiger Ady, were important mediators of cultural knowledge pertaining to South Asian foods, and constructed rules around Australian conceptions of curry, asserting what was appropriate, and what was not.  Both women spent formative years in Burma, Ceylon and India, before immigrating to Australia.[32] Evident in their recipes, these backgrounds significantly demonstrate the permeability of national boundaries to flows of people, but particularly to food culture, and go some way towards assisting in accounting for the incorporation of various cultures’ dishes as ‘curry’ in Australia. Examining the works of Solomon and Ady in relation to theliftout, – which included Thai, Indonesian, Malay and Burmese curries –  reveals that curry was used to introduce Australians to the food cultures of Southeast Asia. It was a familiar concept, used to popularise new flavours, ingredients and cuisines. Curry was again a stepping stone, itself a connector, assisting in making unfamiliar foods accessible.

The incorporation of South East Asian dishes, under the name curry, illustrates the complex ways the food was simultaneously thought of as a part of, but also removed from Australian food culture. While named and thought of as from another place, these curries have been adopted, and are now commonly perceived as belonging. Curry here, as it has been for most of Australian history, is thus at once ‘in’ and ‘out’ of place.

[1] Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (London, Harvard University Press, 1998), 8.

[2] This paper is derived from Frieda Moran, ‘Ordinary and Exotic: A Cultural History of Curry in Australia,’ (Honours thesis, University of Tasmania, 2018).

[3] Allen S. Weiss, ‘Authenticity,’ Gastronomica 11.4 (2001), 77.

[4] Cecilia Leong-Salobir, Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire (London: Routledge, 2011), 1.

[5] Arjun Appadurai, ‘How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 30.1 (1988), 3-24;Naben Ruthnum, Curry: Eating, Reading and Race (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2017), 15.

[6] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 4 December 1813, 2; Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 20 July 1806, 1; Jacqui Newling has observed an earlier reference to curry, served in 1810 at the Government House in Sydney. Jacqui Newling, ‘Currying Favour on Australia’s Tables: The Transformation of an Imperial Staple,’ History: Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society 132 (2017), 16.

[7] Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss asserted ‘the cooked is the cultural transformation of the raw.’  Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘Culinary triangle,’ New Society 8.221 (1966), 937-40; Barbara Santich, ‘Nineteenth-Century Experimentation and the Role of Indigenous Foods in Australian Food Culture,’ Australian Humanities Review 51 (2011), 73; ‘Curried Wattlebirds’ appear in Pearson, Australian Cookery, 40.

[8] Marcus Clarke, ‘Something to Eat,’ Herald 3 February 1874, 1; Philip E. Muskett (1892) The Art of Living in Australia: Together with Three Hundred Australian Cookery Recipes and Accessory Kitchen Information by Mrs. H. Wicken (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2016), 104.

[9] Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, ‘Official Catalogue.’ 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Wilkie, Welch and Co., 1866), 77.

[10] The 1866 Intercolonial exhibition predominately brought together the Australian colonies, but also featured exhibits from New Zealand, New Caledonia, Mauritius, and Batavia, Emily Harris, ‘Race and Australian National Identity at the 1866-7 Intercolonial Exhibition,’ in Darien-Smith and others, eds., Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World (Melbourne: Monash University ePress, 2008), 03.11.

[11] The Prahran Telegraph 3 Nov 1888, 5; Adele Wessell, ‘There’s No Taste like Home: The Food of Empire,’ in Kate Darian-Smith, et. al., eds., Exploring the British World: Identity, Cultural Production, Institutions (Melbourne: RMIT Publishing, 2004), 815.

[12] Dilston Country Women’s Association’s Dilston Cookery Book (Launceston: Foot & Playsted, 1940); The Armed Services Nurses’ Welfare Association of Tasmania’s Austerity Cookery Book (Launceston: Telegraph Printers, 1943).

[13] Susan Sheridan, ‘Eating the Other: Food and Cultural Difference in the Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1960s,’ Journal of Intercultural Studies 21.3 (2000), 320.

[14] Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 June 1961, 45.

[15] Australian Women’s Weekly, 27 November 1963, 48.

[16] Australian Women’s Weekly, 3 February 1965, 45.

[17] ‘The World’s Best Curries: From Our Leila Howard Test Kitchen,’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 March 1967.

[18] Ibid., 12.

[19] Ibid., 2.

[20] Ibid., 6.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Ibid., 10

[23] Catholic Women’s League of Tasmania, Cookery Book (Launceston: Regal Press, 1981), 5.

[24] ‘World’s Best Curries,’ 13.

[25] Ibid., 12.

[26] Ibid., backcover.

[27] Ibid., 2.

[28]  Lauren Janes, Colonial Food in Interwar Paris: The Taste of Empire (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 118.

[29] Doris M. Ady, Curries from the Sultan’s Kitchen: Recipes from India Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon (Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1968), 9.

[30] Charmaine Solomon, (1972) South East Asian Cookbook (Sydney: Paul Hamlyn, 1976), 10, 101.

[31] Ibid., 50.

[32] Ady, Curries from the Sultan’s Kitchen, backcover; Charmaine Solomon, South East Asian Cookbook, 107;Frances Bonner, ‘The Mediated Asian-Australian Food Identity: From Charmaine Solomon to Masterchef Australia,’ Media International Australia 157 (2015), 103.

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