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UofT history course where cooking curry is a midterm

The Edible History course at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus gives students a chance to make and taste historical recipes.

Students plate finished curry recipes in the learning kitchen at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.

Staff / Torstar News Service

Students plate finished curry recipes in the learning kitchen at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.

Curry: more universal than McDonald’s?

Absolutely, says a University of Toronto food history professor, and he’s got the course to prove it.

“Curry fits in beautifully into the story about how the world ate differently and what that says about global politics, global history, some of those larger forces of social change, and what it really does,” said Dan Bender, who teaches “Edible History: History of Global Foodways” at U of T’s Scarborough campus.

Along with examining how social, political and economic forces have influenced what people have eaten since the dawn of humanity — the rise of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and famines that accompanied the growth of European empires, for example — the course also allows students to literally taste history: homework and lab assignments have students making recipes from the time periods they learned about in class.

“They might be reading materials about a 19th-century migration diary, for example, and then they’ll be cooking some of those dishes, and you can imagine how that really brings it alive,” Bender said.

Students fill hollowed out loaves of bread with

Staff/Torstar News Service

Students fill hollowed out loaves of bread with "bunny chow," a South African curried lamb dish.

“I’m so proud that this is the only history course that I know of where a chef’s knife is required.”

And so, it only made sense that the course’s midterm recently didn’t see students frantically scribbling away in exam halls but back in the campus’s learning kitchen taking turns running a pop-up restaurant where anyone could drop in for a free bite. On the menu: 15 curries from around the world with, of course, a historic twist — the recipes students followed were all written between the mid-1800s to mid-1900s.

“It just made so much sense because curry is a dish that pulls on so many of these different themes of the overall course,” Bender explained.

Dishes on offer at the midterm included bunny chow, a South African lamb curry stuffed in a hollowed-out loaf of bread that traces its roots to Indian immigrants cooking with local ingredients, and a Japanese battleship curry that traces its origins to the British passing on their naval (and imperial) knowledge to Japan’s navy in the 1870s.

Historical curry recipes can taste wildly different from what’s served today thanks, in part, to the industrialization of curry powder production, Bender said — before that, cooks had to make spice blends by hand.

“Eating the flavours side by side, it makes people kind of stand up and say, ‘Wow, the global connections just make a lot of sense to me now,’ ” Bender said. “When you think about a world where we often think about McDonalds as a global food and then you can step back and realize, no, actually, curry is so much more global than the burger, because it’s so intrinsic to so many people’s favourite foods, favourite diets in so many different places.”

History and city studies major Vittoria Ungaro was among the students working in the kitchen when the Star visited. Along with six other classmates, Ungaro was busy prepping the ingredients for a Nonya chicken curry from Singapore, based off a recipe from 1850.

“I’ve never actually had curry so it’s pretty interesting that I get to cook it and see the different smells and eventually taste it,” Ungaro said, adding that she enjoys how hands-on the course is — besides the curry midterm, students have also had a tea tasting and made a Medieval-style roasted rabbit, chocolate and bananas foster.

“It’s awesome, you get to come to school and just cook and then you get to eat … I’m almost learning more than if I was at home just reading all this stuff.”

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