I’ve just had my version of a hot curry. Now, every single Indian friend of mine just fell off their chair laughing. My Bangladeshi friend I am sure is rolling on the floor. Because honestly, their reaction to it would probably be something like: “Be quite tasty if it had any chili in it.” Or “Bit mild.”

Of course for me, that was sweaty forehead, and under my eyes beading with it, burning lips and the thought that I ought to put a roll of toilet paper in the freezer for later.
In no small part… it is what you are used to. The chili pepper was native to Mexico. It’s not something the Indians were used to… once. But they have made it their own, and added their regional variant to it, making the food they add this foreign spice to very much characteristic of their culture and their cuisine. To them it very much part of what they are. Oddly, it seems expat Indians end up eating even hotter curries than those eaten in the country – fascinating in itself.

This is something millions of non-Indian folk across the world appreciate too. Now-a-days you’ll find many families who are neither culturally nor genetically Indian who have grown up eating curries. Many of them will be very knowledgeable about what a good curry ought to be, and some of them will even prepare it with strict adherence to the methods that good cooks in the Indian subcontinent use, and go to great lengths to get the right ingredients.

Of course: if we’re going to get puerile and talk ‘cultural appropriation’ – it’s worth reminding people that the key ingredient came from Mexico. And, if you bother to start researching many of the other much beloved ingredients – they, as often as not had their origins elsewhere. This is as much part of being human as following these silly fads is. Whenever you look at any so-called cultural appropriation, you’ll find the xyz people actually adopted chunks of that culture from… someone else, and changed it a little to suit themselves. That’s as natural to humans as farting. Some people may do it less than others, but we all do it.

Curry and the world-wide spread of curries, has mostly been a win for the species, outside of the ill-judged dodgy vindaloo eaten after sixteen pints of lager.

Now looking at this from a writer/reader perspective: readers are remarkably like a people (or an individual like me) learning to love a good curry… you have to start them gentle, and quite possibly get them used to reading and enjoying doing so from an early age – generationally seems to work as well for reading as curry. A child who comes from a non-reading family will struggle with material that kid who has had books read to them in the cradle will find simplistic. Of course the same holds true of genre: it’s why people who don’t read sf think someone like Atwood good, whereas most hardened sf readers roll their eyes. I don’t know the American equivalent (here it would be Keens), but it is rather western stew made with a teaspoon of tinned curry powder. It’s not curry really. Or rather it is literary fiction with a little sf –as a premade add in, by someone who produces stuff that sf readers would not use. Some people will move from this to experimenting with the real thing. But, like so many families of yesteryear, all they will eat is this pale imitation.

From the writer’s point of view, the entry dish is sf/fantasy that you can enjoy if you’re a sf reader, (the tropes are right, the style is right, but it’s heavily grounded in stuff that ain’t particularly hard to get your head around if you’ve never done more that watch Starwars. Much Urban fantasy fits this, and near-present sf. (it does a good job, and is of value, not only in itself, but as an entry-point. From there, readers ‘get’ the tropes, the format, the underlying concepts true to so much sf, the style etc. They may never read any other type – all well and good – but for a lot of readers it is a gateway (and, naturally good sellers). You throw the non-sf/fantasy reader in at Gene Wolfe or Robert Forward’s Flight of the Dragonfly, and you’re going to lose a lot…

But really, what curry has to teach all of us is that 1) Great curry starts with good ingredients, some exotic, some as ordinary as onions. 2)There is difference between a curry where you have roasted and ground your own spices or used a spoon of garam masala. If it is good masala and you’re not too good about balancing your spices, the masala can be better. It’ll make a good curry, if not a great one. 3) Curry takes time and is all about balance. Balancing spice, and sweet, sour, and salt. Getting them to meld and build on each other. And getting that balance right brings more than just the sum of their parts. The problem I find with so much of the newest generation of trad published sf/fantasy is that so much of it is a chase after more chili. All I get is chili. The rest is bog-standard stew, and no other spices.

And if you can’t take writing lessons from this: I despair of you.
Image by Nat Aggiato from Pixabay


  1. Talking of curry and cultural appropriation, there was a news headline recently that amused me recently. It turns out that Coco ichibanya – a Japanese curry chain – is now going to open a branch in India.

    Which is amusing since curry came to Japan from India via the Royal Navy so it’s kind of like a great grandchild going back home to see the ancestors

  2. And now I want to make (Japanese) curry. I even got my (modern-day western ‘cowboy’) dad hooked on it, by pretty much the method you mention– making a rather western stew but using the curry seasoning. (S&B Oriental Curry– which is actually the same folks who make the blocks most folks in Japan use, anyways.)

    It appeals because beef, carrots, onions and potatoes are ALREADY my dad’s favorite stew ingredients, and it’s why I liked Japanese curry the first time I had it.

  3. I am firmly of the opinion that there’s a wonderful place in this world for jarred curry pre-mixed with coconut milk, and it’s not just for beginners. While simmer sauce isn’t nearly as wonderful as a well-mixed-from-scratch curry, when I’m tired and in a hurry, I can make a decent hot meal in 20 minutes. I have several variants in the cupboard right now!

    While I like making a tagine from scratch and feeding my friends with it, it’s a lot of work and very time intensive. If I don’t have the energy, or the hours of prep time, I can dress up a simmer sauce to taste, and serve instead. They’re still happy to get food that wasn’t thrown out a window at ’em like they were seagulls.

    Similarly, the “same old standard urban fantasy / quest fantasy / sword and sorcery / space opera” isn’t just for entry readers; it’s also for people who are exhausted and just want something entertaining that doesn’t require staring at a screen. I greatly enjoyed Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, but when I’m sick, I want Wen Spencer and Jody Lynn Nye to entertain me without having to think really hard.

    Pulp is a good thing!

  4. I’ve been told that Thai Hot sometimes gets tagged “nuclear waste” …

    Being somewhere waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out beyond “Supertaster”, I try to avoid these gut-searing experiences. Jalepeno tastes great if only it wasn’t hot… hoping that “coolepeno” pepper doesn’t lie (apparently it’s a hybrid and sometimes you get NUCLEAR instead) cuz it sure is loaded up with nice big peppers….

    1. I love the flavor of jalapenos. But I expect there are many aficionados who would be astonished to find that they *have* a flavor over than “hot.”

      The world really could use some mild jalapenos.

      1. If you’re making a sauce or similar, the tamed ones I linked are AWESOME.

        My mom has a recipe that is a roll of sausage, browned; a can or two of nacho cheese condensed soup, and between half a jar and the whole jar of those.

        First time I understood why anybody would bother eating the nasty things! Turns out, they have flavor, not just pain! *insert shocked expression here*

  5. I used to be able to eat hot stuff like nobody’s business. After I got married I had to temper the spices because she found everything too hot. Now, I can’t even order the “hot” variations of stuff at the fast food restaurants without it being too hot for me.

  6. There is a wonderful little Thai/Indian place in Sioux Falls… that uses a 1-4 scale. I find 1 utterly tame, and 2 to be nicely spicely, and generally prefer 3 – with a lager to modulate it. I tried 4 once. Exactly once. Tasted wonderful, but I NEEDED that iced-dessert to get down to “Alright, I can probably drive home now… as long as I make a couple stops for drinks.”

    1. We have a Thai place in Bastrop that uses 1 – 5 (1 is no pepper, 5 is Thai traditional). I tried 3, and it was just about right. Halfway through the dish my nose was running enough that I needed a couple more napkins to soak up the excess. I like hot, but I don’t think I’m going to try 4 or 5. My father could handle Thai traditional (in Thailand, no less), but I think that’s out of my range.

        1. I’ve found out the hard way that if you panic because you were busy talking and hadn’t looked at the menu, and ask for something that’s not on the menu, with proper pronunciation, you have Absolutely No Say on how hot it is. I wasn’t allowed to change my mind; the waitress was absolutely firm that I was darned well going to get the Tom Yum Gai I asked for. I was also going to get it Thai Native, no matter what I asked for…

          Learning experience. One where I couldn’t do anything but profusely thank the tiny Thai grandmother when she popped out of the kitchen to see if “you like??”

        1. Indeed, I’m taking notes.

          I have a lot higher tolerance for heat than I use to, but the pain-heat is not for me. “Higher tolerance” means I don’t flip when I get a medium salsa.

          Finding out you can add lemon juice to cut the heat was a blessing.

          (Picked up a bag of tom yum ramen at Saar’s years ago, hooked.)

  7. Country Captain is a sort of curry/ chicken stew that uses “curry powder,” the yellow mass-market stuff that is quite tame. In fact it has no true pepper in it (either chile or black). I replace it with a good commercial garam masala as the base, and then add other pre-made curry powders to that, depending on my mood (hotter? Mellower? Sweeter?).

    Thai curry is a whole ‘nother critter in terms of heat potentials.

  8. I was recently struck by how bland a cafeteria’s food was, so I had their curried chicken thinking “curried chicken can’t be bland, can it?”. Yes, it can be, somehow.

    I’ve made garam masala, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort. Unless one cooks similar things, there are too many left-overs. Years later, I still have cardamon seeds (in their shells, no less) – what does one do with the things?

    1. While on a business trip to a vendor in England, I got tired of bland food and ordered chicken curry at the vendor’s cafeteria. It, too, was bland. I had to salt and pepper it to be decent. One of the folks at the vendor told me that it is usually served spicier, but every now and then somebody complains about it being too spicy, so the next batch gets made bland – at which point there are a larger number of complaints about bland curry.

  9. You all enjoy your curry, your chili, and assorted spices. You may have my share. Please.

  10. A young fellow whose foresight was blurry
    Consumed a large bowlful of curry;
    The outcome was dire:
    His tongue caught on fire,
    And his gut deliquesced into slurry.

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