Garam Masala, Tikka Masala and Spiciness are all commonly discussed terms in the realm of Indian food overseas. The sheer ubiquity and nature of the “Indian Takeout” in the United Kingdom, often with an only passing resemblance to recipes found on the Indian Subcontinent, is something that perplexes Indians that have grown up eating food made and passed down from generation to generation. Furthermore, accompanying this mass presence of Indian Takeout as a phenomenon is the Garam Masala spice blend. A blend that is ever-present and often misused in adapted “Indian” recipes, that has come to represent all spices.

Scope and Aims of Project

The primary aim of this project is to fill a key research gap in the role of spices, specifically Garam Masala and the concept of “spiciness”, in the construction of the Indian Cultural identity. Western audiences generally see Indian food as a monolithic cuisine with little variety and being limited to misconceived notions of “Curry”. This reductionist view of Indian food takes on features that are distinctly Orientalist, in Edward Said’s original description.

As a result, this Orientalist view of Indian food culture has resulted in a massive gap in written historiography on the topic of the relationship between spices and cultural identity. On the other hand, on a family and personal level, many features that would have been constitutive of cultural identity building are taken for granted and thus not recorded in a manner that is “admissible” in the court of historical analysis. In many ways, Garam Masala and the concept of “spiciness” with its limited scope, is being used as a microcosmic analytical tool to understand the wider trends in Indian food culture. 

The project will analyse Indian food identity on two levels. Firstly, the investigation of the ground-up construction of Indian food identity and culture through oral historical and social anthropological methodologies. Specifically, cookbooks, personal interviews, family histories and postcolonial literature. This bottom-up methodology aims to uncover the patterns and paradigms present in perceptions of Indian food identity, through the lens of Indians themselves. 

The oral history perspective can be understood as a genealogical study of food knowledge and the patterns of this knowledge diffusion from generation to generation. The vast variations in how different families create, mix and utilise Garam Masala are in itself a constituent part of how food identity is constructed. Furthermore, cookbooks, provide a more formalised record of specific recipe usages and identity construction through written record. Although the recipes themselves provide a rich field for analysis, the accompanying introductions to the recipes and short condensed histories surrounding fundamental Indian foods are also very useful in this regard.

Finally, the analysis of literary depictions of Garam Masala, spices and “spiciness” takes a slightly more linguistic approach, with emphasis on how the literary discourse around these two phenomena impact how people view the Indian culinary identity. 

The second level of investigation involves the colonisation of Garam Masala as a symbol of Indian culinary identity throughout the Indian Subcontinent’s history. More specifically the narratives and trends of how Indian food culture made its way from India to the United Kingdom (UK). This portion will incorporate aspects of transnational migratory history and trace the movements of specific culinary practices and ingredients that have found their way into Garam Masala, as well as the subsequent colonisation and exportation of culinary practices. 

By analysing sources that trace the transnational movement of spices and the colonial adoption of Indian spices and Indian cuisine overall, I aim to trace the threads of gradual colonisation of Garam Masala and Indian food identity. The majority of the sources that will be utilised from this section will be a combination of Imperial and Postcolonial sources, to contrast these differing perspectives. Tracing the migratory patterns of individuals and groups that brought different variations of Indian food culture will be the main basis of my research. On the ground level, research into the evolution of Indian spice usage in the local British context will be studied through a mixture of oral histories, interviewing chefs working at Indian Takeaways and possibly members of the parliamentary committee on curry in the UK.

(Project Proposal) Transcending the Tikka Masala: The Local and Transnational Role of Garam Masala and Spiciness in the Construction and Colonisation of Indian Identity through Food Culture.