This is not a food blog, but how can I resist Rishidev Chaudhuri’s post “Some notes on the grammar of the curry” at 3 Quarks Daily when it includes rhetoric like this?

But how to explain this fetishism of particular signifiers, this combinatorial generation of a menu from {chicken, lamb, shrimp} and some handful of sauces, these ungrammatical and unpoetic culinary utterances? How to explain the same sauce applied, with minor variations, to produce aborted versions of the same dish under many different names. What drives such promiscuous corruption of the understanding? Whence such systemic violence?

Even the most materialistic among us must realize that if we have no hope of seizing the means of production, we can still hope to educate. The following curry is as an example, not an essential exemplar or generative grammar. All of these principles are violated somewhere; still, they are a glimpse into the overlapping set of rules and resemblances that make up the cuisines of South Asia, whose grandeur and allusive depth is matched only by those of the French and of the Japanese.

Also, curry is an enticing thought as winter approaches (we’re supposed to get snow tonight here in the Valley). And let me take the occasion to wish Robin, jamessal’s bride, a speedy return to well-being and the leisure to resume her wonderful blog.


  1. Hear, hear, about Robin. She mentioned a frozen green curry dessert, here, that I always wondered about. It sounded like a possibility for their icecream shop.

  2. Yes, that is a wonderful article. I really liked the idea of Indian-restaurant owners being “in thrall to some obscure formal ideology” of trivializing the glorious cuisines of the subcontinent, making them meaningless by intermixing and dulling them.

  3. (Curry is more of a summer dish for me though.)

  4. Charles Perry says

    The obtuse practice of referring to the “grammar” of non-languages (such as cookery) is the sort of thing that made me decide to stay out of the academic world. Is curry an SOV or SVO dish?

  5. I don’t get it.

  6. Mr. Perry — It seems to me Chaudhuri is using “grammar” in a metaphorical sense — he is accusing Indian-restaurant owners of treating the “languages” of Subcontinental cuisines as if they could be be completely understood by means of a structural grammar, in which you can make a meaningful sentence by combining some subject (i.e. protein), verb (sauce), and object (starch) — this produces Mad Libs rather than literature. The metaphor works for me, YMMV.

  7. You think “grammar” got stolen, Perry, try googling “architect” or “architecture” and see if you get anything up about buildings. “Architecture” is a metaphor about how computers are arranged and an “architect” is anyone who implements a big idea: often it’s invading Europe.

  8. Curried spaghetti on rice with chips – student days, eh?

  9. I have no reason to doubt that Chaudhuri knows what he’s talking about, but I think he stumbles at one point in describing it. In his reply to a comment, he writes:

    The frying is with oil, on medium high heat. The pastes and spices will start to brown some, but it really is the aroma that tells you when they’re done.

    In my moderately ignorant experience, medium high heat – assuming he means what you get by turning the heat knob halfway around – would be much too hot on a German electric stove. Garlic paste burns at the very thought of hot oil, while freshly ground coriander seed, cumin etc. turn to black powder in the twinkling of an eye.
    Every cook, when reading a recipe, has to make corrections for his own local world-slice. We all know that “onion” and “egg” have very different sizes in different areas, so that how many to use has to be considered carefully. When baking, you have to take altitude into account. Chaudhuri’s piece has given me the idea that even “medium heat” is a notion to be careful with. It wouldn’t surprise me if German stoves had to satisfy some DIN norm as to the amount of heat to be produced by each “1,2,… 6” setting on the temperature knob, but I bet that there is no deep StOVe structure on an international scale.

  10. I imagine German manufacturers specify how many Joules each burner outputs. Here in the States, it’s BTUs, of course. A BTU is more or less a kJ. A “commercial style” home gas range has burners around 16-17,000 BTU. A real commercial gas range has 30-33,000 BTU. (We have one. This was somewhat unusual twenty-five years ago, but is common now in bespoke kitchens.) A wok burner is > 100,000 BTU. (We lust after one of those, but had to draw the line someplace for practicality and safety.)
    We’ve learned to adjust the high / medium high setting (or the amount of time if all you’re doing is boiling off liquid) in just the way you suggest.

  11. M, what could one do with 100,000 BTUs for a wok that makes you lust after such a burner? Can you make horse shoes on it?

  12. I said it wasn’t practical for a home. But I think there is a genuine difference when stir-frying. Alton Brown, in the Pad Thai episode, proposed using hardwood charcoal outside, but he’s in Atlanta.

  13. Whoa! These are units of energy. A stove burner would have to be rated in something like joules per second or ergs per hour or BTUs per biennium or calories per calendar month.

  14. Trond Engen says

    “architect” is anyone who implements a big idea: often it’s invading Europe
    That’s why (and I hope I’m not saying too much) the first paragraph in the secret code of structural engineers says “Keep the architect busy at any time and by any mean”.

  15. Charles Perry says

    The use of “architecture” to suggest something grander and more complex than “structure” doesn’t bother me. Already in Greek, τέκτων could mean any kind of skilled workman, not just a carpenter.
    What I object to in the “grammar” of this or that is the tiresome implication that anything in the world can be considered discourse. It reeks of English department swanks trying to steal some glamour from science as they pad their publication histories.
    A recipe can be a pattern or a tradition, you can imply things by how you alter it or serve the dish, but food itself does not have anything comparable to grammatical structure. Here I stand, I can do no other.

  16. As with furnaces and air-conditioners, BTU is used informally as a unit of power, implying BTU per hour. Furthermore, it’s not like someone actually measured how much went into heat, even with prototypes. So, it’s really only for relative comparison.

  17. A picture is worth a thousand words, and all the grammatical structure in the world does not have anything remotely comparable to a piece of hot buttered toast and a nice cup of tea.
    Grandeur and complexity aren’t what I’m complaining about. What’s more, I’m not speaking Greek.
    I’m not surprised to hear there is a secret code, but I have never had any reason to doubt the word of a structural engineer. I think they’re a wonderful breed.

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