To Curry Favor
Shankill Castle, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland
Turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala, and chili powder from Kilkenny Halal Foods and Shortis Wong Deli
In 2015 I was invited to participate in the arts festival at Shankill Castle in Kilkenny, Ireland. The castle was originally a butler tower-house near the ruins of an old church that was rebuilt in the 1700s. As the installation site I was offered the conservatory, a more "recent" addition from the 1800s.
I was so excited at the prospect of flinging sacks of spices on the rarefied walls of a castle. After all, the history of the spice trade and the creation of curry powder is the history of empire. In Europe in the middle ages, spices signified unprecedented wealth. The colonization was driven by a desire for these rare ingredients. But what we, in the West, recognize today as "curry" is also associated with immigration, working class peoples, and neighborhoods. Over the years I have used spices to trace my own migration in relationship to global history.
In Ireland I learned of the brutal history of 800 years of direct English rule. There is deep international solidarity with other freedom movements including Indian independence where my grandfather was a Freedom Fighter. The "potato famine" was actually an Irish genocide. While millions were dying, England was exporting food from the island. The population of Ireland dropped from 8 million to 4.4 million due to death and emigration. To this day, the population remains at 4.7 million and emigration is still headline news.
When I asked about recent immigration to Ireland and the European Union one person told me, "It's complicated, but the Irish also know what it means to leave." I was surprised to find that the small town of Kilkenny had two Asian grocery stores - Shortis Wong Deli, named after the Irish and Singaporean couple who opened the shop many years ago, and the newly opened Kilkenny Halal Foods. When I asked the young cashier about Asian immigration to this rural part of the country he smiled and said, "you'd be surprised how many of us there are."
There is curry, and there are South Asian dishes made with blends of spices. I was surprised to discover that the nearest restaurant to the castle was a curry takeaway catering to Irish residents. Kilkenny Halal, on the other hand, serves recent South Asian immigrants with aisles of spices and other ingredients. Both places offered a taste of comfort and familiarity.
The Copes joked that it must have been a curried ghost that brought me to the castle conservatory. Before I had arrived with my bags of spices, the family used the conservatory to enjoy curry takeaway on rare, sunny Irish evenings.
Many thanks to:
Sybil Cope and the Cope family for their hospitality and generosity
Audio editor - Kyana Moghadam
Installation assistance - Victor Chavez