Divas and Myths

American Lowcountry and Indian coast

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The Diva of Daufuskie

By Ellen Kanner

The Gullah Diva, aka Sallie Ann Robinson, has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and the Food Network and in Bon Appetit. She’s the author of three cookbooks, including the new “Sallie Ann Robinson’s Kitchen,” but above all of her professional accomplishments, Robinson’s most invested in being a sixth-generation Gullah.

The Gullah Geechee, Lowcountry’s African American people, have preserved their African heritage over centuries. Robinson is one of the cultural leaders now, keeping Gullah dialect, folkways and spirit alive by championing its cuisine. 

Robinson’s book is full of Lowcountry (parts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina) recipes for dishes like red rice and blackberry dumplings; it’s also a social history of her home’s shrinking Gullah community.

Robinson, 63, lives on South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island. It’s accessible only by boat, just as it was when she was growing up there. Back then, she didn’t know the term Gullah. “The word wasn’t in our vocabulary. We didn’t think we were different.” Then in the ‘70s, the tourists started coming. Another term Robinson didn’t know was cultural appropriation, but she and the Gullah people saw it, with white chefs presenting Lowcountry cuisine as their own.

“Folks were not telling people the truth. I’m not saying whites don’t know, but they were making a point of saying it’s their recipe. It’s not.”

Refusing to stand by while others cashed in on her culture, Robinson took it back. In her cookbooks and her guided tours of Daufuskie, which benefit the restoring of the island’s original Gullah homes and graveyards, Robinson shares “authentic knowledge. I’ve lived it.”

Half a century back, Daufuskie had its flutter of fame in “The Water is Wide,” Pat Conroy’s  memoir about teaching there. Robinson, one of his former students and a lifelong friend, is generous about how Conroy inspired her, but she’s nobody’s sidekick. She’s the Gullah Diva, after all.

“I gave myself that name way back,” says Robinson. “I loved Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin. They were being called divas, so I said, I’m a diva — sharing the love for the Gullah culture, the history, the food.” 🥣

The Myth of the Indian Curry

By Joanna Lobo

What’s the one meal you could eat every day without getting bored? For me, it would be a Goan coconut fish curry and rice called xitt kodi. 

A simple fish curry? In the coastal state of Goa, in India, there are distinctive dishes that fall under the umbrella term of “fish curry.” These include hooman, a simple coconut curry who variations depend on the fish being used; ambotik, spicy and tangy; and uddamethi with fenugreek seeds and split black gram. 

Goa isn’t unique in this regard. Across India, the term curry finds new meaning in different places. Indian “curry,” though, does not exist. 

Curry has become a metonym for Indian food. Some spices and ghee, the ubiquitous curry powder, some heat, and voilà, an Indian curry. But we don’t want to lay claim to that dubious dish. 

What’s in a name? When it comes to a curry, quite a lot. The term was introduced by British colonizers to describe dishes they couldn’t pronounce or knew little about — anything with a spicy gravy or a sauce-like base. But Indian dishes cannot be summed up under one catch-call term. 

The homogenization of curry has much to do with lack of knowledge. An exploration of curries prepared in India would require tomes; my attempt barely scratches the surface. 

The word curry comes from the anglicized version of the Tamil “kari” or “karil,” meaning sauce. Curry doesn’t relate to a specific type of dish, it is not a flavor, isn’t always yellow or orange in color, and it isn’t always spicy. 

The beauty of Indian curries is that these vary according to region, season, community, climate, produce, cultural traditions, religion, food taboos, and that rarely dwelled-upon subject, caste. They often balance the Ayurvedic six tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, astringent, pungent, and bitter. There are wet and dry versions. Curries are usually a complex blend of spices. These spices are roasted and powdered, pounded, or ground into a dry spice mix (masala) that differs from family to family, or into a wet paste with water, yoghurt, vinegar, or oil. These spices are sautéed in fat at the beginning of a cook, and often tempered in a little oil and added at the end for extra flavor. 

We don’t call our gravy dishes curry (unless we are being lazy), but by specific names: dhansak, rajma, chhole, vindaloo, macher jhol, ooti, kozhambu, etc.  

Curry may be the oldest continuously prepared dish on the planet. Archaeologists traced the world’s oldest-known proto-curry — ginger, turmeric, and eggplant, from a pot shard unearthed at the Harappan excavation site in India. I am willing to bet they didn’t call it curry back then, either. 🐟

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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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