One of the trailers of The Hundred-Foot Journey shows Helen Mirren (Madam Mallory) posing the following question to Manish Dayal (Hassan Kadam) in a very smug tone: “but a curry is a curry, is it not?”. As a notacurry activist I was naturally fascinated by the trailer. I thought that finally a mainstream Hollywood movie was going to dispel the “curry” myth. Unfortunately–for me and for curry–neither the trailer, nor the full length movie attempts to answer the film’s burning question of whether or not “a curry is a curry”.
The film opens with a pleasant background score using sitar, sarod, and tabla that quickly transitions to the sounds of a chaotic Mumbai bazaar. Chaos and India–get the drift? We see some dead chickens hanging upside-down and a colossal number of people aimlessly running around and unnecessarily bumping into each other. Because if anything can symbolize India, it’s dead chickens and over-population. Then we see Hassan’s mother (played by Juhi Chawla) single-mindedly running after a man carrying a basket of sea urchins on his head. Even all the dead chickens couldn’t save this scene, because no one eats (or has even seen) sea urchins in India. The entire point of this scene was to show how Indian buyers barbarously gather around sea urchin vendors and needlessly flail their hands in the air, while the sea urchin wala unfairly gives the sea urchins to “the boy who knows”, a.k.a Hassan the protagonist. Then some soothing music follows, the scene cuts to the beautiful ports of Rotterdam, as we hear Hassan tell his tragic story of loss–of home, of country, of a loved one.
Turns out that Hassan’s family, a Muslim family, had to flee their ancestral home after a mob set fire to it in the wake of a religious riot following “an election of some kind”. Apparently, religious riots are so commonplace in India that no contextual reference is required. I guess the film tries to atone for its stereotypical, barbaric and xenophobic representation of India by giving French xenophobia a similarly cursory treatment. The fine sensibilities of Madame Mallory’s quaint French village is so offended by the Indian spices and music that a bunch of hooligans, in cahoots with Madame Mallory’s head chef, try to set fire to Kadam family’s new Indian restaurant. It is only with this extreme act of terrorism that Madame Mallory realizes what an uptight ass she has been. As a way to make up for her impudence she offers Hassan “a stepping stone to the world” and promises to teach him “how to cook with class”, because clearly he doesn’t have any…being Indian and all.
Unfortunately, the orientalist representation of India is not the film’s only problem. The film’s assumptions about gender roles in the kitchen are also extremely stereotypical. Madam Mallory, the extremely arrogant French chef, is implicitly aware that she cannot win a second Michelin star without the help of Hassan. Therefore, the only role that Madam Mallory and Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) play in the kitchen is that of nurturing Hassan’s natural talent.
Even though the film appears to be about food, family, and cultural harmony, it fails on all accounts. The film lacks a coherent narrative as the entire plot seems to be driven by a bunch of clichés and cultural assumptions. Scenes of half baked comedy and melodrama are loosely tied together with musical passages and over used long shots of the French country side. The secondary characters seem to accomplish no other purpose than filling the screen. The food shots are also extremely mediocre. The late trip to Paris’s trendy molecular gastronomic world that was supposed to have been the highlight of the film, falls flat and appears almost depressing. But the greatest problem of the film is that it fails to even remotely address the issues of cultural homogenization, although it pretends to be doing just that. All in all, it is another insincere attempt by Hollywood to represent the East.
So, I thought I will post a recipe today that does not use any of the typical “curry” ingredients. Instead, it uses garlic, tomatoes, cottage cheese and cream. Take what you want from this post, but this paneer butter masala really is the most delicious panner!
Paneer butter masala recipe
Level: easy Preparation time: 20 mins Cooking time: 20 mins Serves: 4
6 medium tomatoes
2 tbsp butter/oil
1-2 bay leaves
8-10 cloves of garlic, minced
1 green chili, chopped
1/2 tsp chili powder
salt to taste
1 tsp sugar
1 lb paneer, cut into bite size cubes
1/4 cup fresh cream
1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (optional)
Broil the tomatoes at the highest temperature possible for 10-12 minutes, or until the skin starts to split and blister. Let them cool down. Then peel the skins. Alternately, you can immerse the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or hold them over an open gas flame to peel the skin. But charring the tomatoes a little gives it a much better taste.
Puree the tomatoes using a little water.
Heat butter over medium heat in a non-stick pan.
Add cardamom and bay leaves and wait until they start spluttering (30 secs).
Add garlic and chopped green chilies and saute for 30 more seconds.
Add the tomato puree and let it simmer, stirring occasionally, until the butter/oil has separated (10-12 mins).
Add chili powder, salt and sugar; give it a stir and let simmer for 2 more minutes.
Add the paneer pieces and stir.
Reduce heat, add cream and dried fenugreek and let simmer for 2-3 more minutes.
Adjust seasoning before removing from heat.
Serve with naan, pita, or rice.