Curry – a world traveler

When you think of curry, which country or region comes to mind?

  • India
  • Thailand
  • Caribbean
  • Japan
  • China
  • Britian

Any of the above, and indeed many other countries would be correct, and you would still be thinking in the right direction if your mind wandered  to Germany or South Africa and a host of other locations, but where did it all begin?

curry photo from

curry photo from

If ever a dish was truly global, curry should be the picture in the dictionary of that dish.  A spiced dish of fish, meat, poultry, or vegetables, it originated in India.  Among the spices used in curries are coriander, cumin, chili, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, and turmeric.  In hot climates, these spices may act as a preservative. Other ingredients that may be added to the dish, and the curry would still be considered “authentic” include garlic, yogurt, and coconut milk.  The ingredients have been tweaked to account for local tastes but evidence of the original can still be found, although you may have to really look.  In fact, there is not single recipe, or list of exclusive ingredients, really, the term curry started out as a generic description of Indian food by the British and has since come to expand this definition to all corners of the globe.

A curry is any of a variety of distinctively spiced dishes, best-known in Indian, Thai and other South Asian cuisines, but curry was adopted by all of the mainstream cuisines of the Asia-Pacific area. Along with tea, curry is one of the few foods that is truly “pan-Asian”.  The term curry, itself, is not really used in India, except as a term appropriated by the British to generically categorize a large set of different stew preparations ubiquitous in India.  These dishes typically contain ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric, chile, and oil.

Some historical perspective on curries

map from

map from

The history of curry is two-fold: curried-style foods, the Indian dish composed of spices, meat and rice plus a combination of various spices (this mixture would be considered curry powder) used to flavor food.  In India, what most Western countries call curry powder, is known as garam masala, and within Indian, this spice’s ingredients and ratios change with the regions and the cooks, so no two versions might be considered the same.

“Curry is from the Tamil word ‘kari’ a term for black pepper, derives the Indo-Anglian curry, which has come to symbolize Indian food for the westerner.  Tamil is one of the most widely spoke languages on the continent.  [Note: the Bengali word tôrkari has also been suggested as a possible origin for the English word “curry”.]  The term originally denoted any spiced dish that accompanied south Indian food, and was first so referred to, using the term caril’, by Correra as early as in AD 1502…Later the word cury was greatly widened in usage to include a liquid broth, a thicker stewed preparation, or even a spiced dry dish, all of which appear in turn in a south Indian meal, each with its own name.”   A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, K. T. Achaya [Oxford University Press:Delhi] 1998

“Spices are the key to Indian cooking. Masalas vary widely and each is designed for a special purpose. Garam masla, for example, is a basic blend of dried spices to be used alone or with other seasonings.”  -The Cooking of India, Foods of the World [series], Time/Life

An Indian curry is indeed made rather like a stew. It may be of meat, fish, or vegetables, and herbs and spices are added; they are mixed together and ground to a powder which itself eventually became known as “curry.” Originally every region and every family had its own secret [curry] formula. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, ready-prepared curry powder could be found for sale in Indian towns. Then, so the tale goes, an Englishman named Sharwood was dining with the Maharaja of Madras, who mentioned to him the shop kept by a famous master maker of curry powder called Vencatachellum. The Englishman visited it and obtained the secret of Madras curry powder, a mixture of saffron, tumeric, cumin, Kerala coriander and a selection of Orissa chillies…”  -History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat [Barnes & Noble:New York] 1992

“Curry, a mixture of powdered spices. Some curry powders contain up to 16 different ground spices. Curry was at one time an epicurean rite of English army circles in India, officers priding themselves on the special combination of spices they had invented.”  -Master Dictionary of Food and Cookery, Henry Smith [Practical Press:London] 1950

The spread of curry beyond India is inextricably linked to the presence of the British Raj in India. Army personnel and civil servants acquired a taste for spicy food whilst in India and brought their newly discovered dishes home (or to other parts of the Empire).  The British adapted the local dishes to suit their own tastes.  Mulligatawny soup, for example, is an Anglicised version of its more pungent Indian forbear which was actually a type of sauce.  Similarly, kedgeree was originally a rice and lentil dish but was adapted by the British to be a breakfast dish containing fish.

Common Indian Pakistani Curries found in Restaurants:

Indian Restaurant in the Sunset

Indian Restaurant in the Sunset

Balti applies more to a style of cooking than a particular curry. The word balti can be translated as “bucket” (i.e. a cooking pan) and some say this cooking style is indigenous to the northern Pakistan region known as Baltistan. A balti pan is basically a karahi, a wok shaped pot with two round handles on either side of the pan instead of one long handle. In specialist “Balti Houses” the balti is a meal in itself which contains both meat and vegetables and is eaten straight from the karahi by using naan bread to dip into the dish.  it should be no surprise that the karahi is shaped like a work.  Pakistan borders India, China, Afghanistan and Iran, so it’s style of cooking has been influenced by it’s neighbours over the centuries.  The Moguls spent the hot summer months in the cool mountains of Kashmir bringing with them many exotic spices to cook with the lamb or goat.

Bhuna is a cooking process where spices are gently fried in oil to release their flavor. The dish “bhuna” is an extension of that process where meat is added to the spices and then cooked in its own juices which results in deep strong flavours but scant and often thick sauce. Heat is usually medium hot.

Biryani is not really a curry, but the curry connection comes from the mixed vegetable curry with which it is served in most Indian restaurants. Biryani originated in Persia and, at its simplest, was rice and meat baked together in the oven. The cooks to the Moghul emperors took this recipe and transformed it into a courtly delicacy by adding aromatic spices and other exotic ingredients. Traditionally, biryanis are slowly baked so the aromatic spices and the meat’s juices permeate the rice.  This dish is commonly  garnished with almonds and sultanas or  golden raisins.  This dish is mild.  One way to test the quality of a biryani is to drop a bit on the floor – no two pieces of rice should be left sticking together – I prefer a simple and less messy taste test myself.  Note, that many restaurants do not cook authentic biryani, more of a rice pilaf.

Dhansak is a famous Parsee dish, traditionally served with a pulao of fried and spiced rice. An authentic dhansak will made with lamb and contain vegetables and different types of dhal (the sak in the name), so dhan = rice, and sak = dhal.

Dopiaza is a classic Indian dish dating back to Moghul times, and perhaps even before. The name dopiaza roughly translates as “2 onions” or “double onions”.  Some versions of the dish use twice the weight of onions compared to the weight of meat, but classic Indian dopiaza is more likely to use the onions in 2 different ways: fried and boiled, incorporated at different stages of the cooking. This dish is medium hot.

Jalfrezi is non-traditional Indian dish but, like the bhuna, is actually a method of cooking.  Literally it means “hot-fry” or  “stir-fry”.  Jalfrezi entered the English language at the time of the British Raj in India; colonial households employed Indian cooks who used the jalfrezi method of cooking to heat up cold roasted meat and potatoes.  Cooks today use the jalfrezi method to stir-fry green peppers, onions and lots of green chillies as the basis for a curry with a bit of sauce. This dish is one of the hotter “curries”.

Karahi is a favorite Pakistani curry with either lamb or chicken cooked in a dry sauce.

Korai is another name for balti-style curry to be found on some Indian restaurant menues.  Both the balti and korai contain stir fried meat and vegetables and take their name from the utensil in which they are cooked. Because korai is a style of cooking rather than a traditional recipe, versions can vary considerably among restaurants.  It can be medium or hot and will usually contain green peppers, tomatoes and onions.

Korma involves a long slow cooking. It is not a specific dish but a method of cooking similar to braising. Because korma is a cooking method many dishes that could be described as “korma”.  Some kormas call for the meat to be marinated in yoghurt and then the meat plus marinade are braised on a very low heat until all the juices condense into a thick sauce.

Madras is a type of curry invented by a restaurant as a hotter version of the standard restaurant curry, as such each restaurant puts its own stamp on the final product, so consistency is not the name of the game.  This curry is on the hot side.

Malayali curries of Kerala typically contain shredded coconut paste or coconut milk, curry leaves, and various spices. Mustard seeds are used in almost every dish, along with onions, curry leaves, sliced red chillies fried in hot oil.

Moghlai is a Mogul based dish, as the name suggests. They ruled much of the Asian sub-continent for 3 centuries, leaving behind a rich legacy not just in art and architecture, but some pretty spectacular cuisine. There is no one Moghul style, but the usual interpretation is rich and creamy and contains plenty of ginger, ground almonds, yogurt and cream.  This dish is mild to medium.

Pasanda is derived from a court dish of the Moghul emperors and traditionally made with thinly sliced and marinated lamb fillets. It is sometimes called lamb badam pasanda because the dish contains ground almonds “badam”.  This dish is mild and can contain ground almonds, cardamon pods, puréed tomatoes and cream.

Patia, like its more famous cousin, dhansak, is a Parsee dish, traditionally made with fish cooked in a dark vinegar sauce.  The restaurant patia is hot, and equally sweet and sour.

Rogan josh was originally a Kashmiri dish, but equally at home in the Punjab. An authentic rogan josh will be made with lamb and may contain dozens of spices. The Kashmiri and Punjabi versions differ (the Kashmiri does not traditionally contain onions or garlic) but they are both highly spiced and are a deep red color, a result of liberal use of dried red Kashmiri chillies.   Most restaurants achieve that color through red peppers and tomatoes rather than Kashmiri chillies. The restaurant rogan is characterised by its garnish of tomato pieces and fresh coriander. It is usually medium hot.

Saag gosht is a classic curry made with spinach and lamb. Saag is, strictly speaking, a generic term for tender green leaves such as spinach, mustard greens and fresh fenugreek leaves.  (Spinach is called palak.)  Many restaurants offer a chicken or a prawn alternative to lamb and so the dish will be listed as just “saag” or “palak” omitting the gosht (lamb) from the name. Saag is usually medium hot.

Tikka masala originated in the United Kingdom  (a future post will reveal all, so I leave you in suspense until then)  Chicken tikka masala is the most popular dish on an Indian restaurant menu.

photo from

photo from

Vindaloo was originally a Portuguese dish which got its name from the two main ingredients which were “vinho” – wine/wine vinegar, and “alhos” – garlic.  Over time,  the indigenous peoples of the ex-Portuguese colony of Goa put their own stamp on it by spicing it up.  Not many restaurants produce an authentic Goan vindaloo mostly because the pork used by Christian Goans in their recipe is not acceptable to Muslim chefs.  Some Indian restaurants might interpret the “aloo” part of the name as meaning potato and introduced diced potato to the mix along with lemon juice for tartness and black pepper for extra pungency.  This dish has a kick.

Curry addiction & health benefits

A number of studies claim that the reaction of pain receptors to the hotter ingredients in curries leads to the body’s release of endorphins and combined with the complex sensory reaction to the variety of spices and flavours, a natural high is achieved that causes subsequent cravings, and result in a desire for ever hotter curries.  An unrelated study has suggested that curry has a positive effect on the aging brain, perhaps explaining why Alzheimers rates are lower in countries like India.

Common Curry Ingredients


  • Besan (chickpea/garbanzo flour)
  • onions/shallots
  • cream
  • coconut milk
  • yogurt
  • nuts

curry spices (photo from

curry spices (photo from


  • allspice
  • anise seed – is not used, but sometimes mentioned incorrectly, when the spice is fennel, according to Camellia Punjabi
  • asafoetida (Hing) – used in small doses, mainly as an anti-flatulent
  • black cumin (Kala jeera)
  • black pepper (Mizhaku)
  • cardamom (Elaichi) both black and green
  • chili peppers (dried red) (Vath-thal mizhakaai) – added for the heat
  • cinnamon or cassia
  • cloves (Kirambu)
  • coriander (Dhaniya or Kothumalli)
  • cumin seeds (Jeera or Seeragam) – considered a digestive
  • fennel – featured in Kasmiri cuisine
  • fenugreek seeds (Methi orVenthayam)
  • garam masala
  • mace
  • mustard seeds (Kadugu) – a great spice of Bengal where they are grown in abundance, usually the first spice to be fried
  • nigella (kalonji)
  • nutmeg – originated in the Moluccas of Indonesia and exported to India, today it is grown in Kerala
  • poppy seeds – almost always used in a paste form
  • saffron (Karu manjal) – used in biryani for the yellow color and delicate fragrance
  • star anise – mainly used in the Chettiar region which has long trading ties to China, this spice is not native to India
  • turmeric (Puliyam Pazham) – used for the color it imparts as well as its preservative properties [per Camellia Punjabi, used more by the Hindus than Muslims who avoid adding it to food.]

Sour ingredients

  • vinegar
  • tamarind (imbli)
  • lime (nimbu)
  • amchoor (dried mango powder, also spelled ‘amchur’)

Fresh herbs and spices

  • garlic
  • ginger – mainly used fresh except in the Kashmir region where dried is also used
  • coriander (cilantro) leaves
  • curry leaves
  • bay leaves
  • kaffir lime leaves
  • mint
  • chillies – note the green ones are considered hottest
  • onion
  • powdered rose petals

Did you know?

  • The hottest curry on an Indian restaurant menu is the Pahl
  • The hottest chilli in the world is the Bhut Jolokia chilli
  • A recent survey has found curry is one of the favourite dishes of 3-5 year olds.
  • To make a hot curry mild just add coconut milk.
  • Scientists have found turmeric which is frequently used in curries can help prevent or treat cancer, arthritis and diabetes.
  • Spicy curries release endorphins similar to that of a runners high, with some claiming it can be addictive.

Watermelon Curry (Matira Curry)

Serves 6

photo from

photo from

A recipe from the Rajastjan region of India, and this version is adapted from Saveur magazine.  Its a delicious recipe and not a common one.  I also thought it would be good to include given the bounty of watermelons at the market.


1-  3# seedless watermelon, rind left on
2 T canola oil
½ tsp. ajwain
½ tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. nigella seeds
2 dried chiles de árbol, stemmed
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp turmeric
2 tsp chopped fresh cilantro, garnish
Steamed basmati rice


Trim and discard the thin, dark green skin of the watermelon rind with a knife, leaving the inner, whitish-green rind intact. Separate the rind from the red flesh with the knife and cut both rind and flesh into 1″ pieces. Set aside in separate bowls.

In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat, and add ajwain, cumin, nigella seeds, and chiles and cook, swirling the pan, until spices are toasted and fragrant, 2–3 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 30 seconds. Add watermelon rind, salt, and turmeric and cook, stirring occasionally, until rind is lightly browned and liquid has almost evaporated, about 7 minutes.

Pour 1 cup water into pan, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer curry, stirring occasionally, until the rind pieces are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover saucepan, add the red flesh, and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high and boil, stirring occasionally, until the flesh softens slightly and the flavors come together, about 5 minutes. Transfer curry to a serving platter and sprinkle with the cilantro. Serve with rice.

This spice is a seasoned travel and has been modified to accommodate local tastes.  This post is the first in a series on this wonderfully diverse dish.  The next installment looks at curries in the UK.  Future posts include curry leaves, curry powders, curries in other parts of the world.

Update me when site is updated

27 comments for “Curry – a world traveler

  1. July 29, 2009 at 9:14 PM

    Wow, this is amazing and informative. Indian food is very sophisticated! Curry fever everywhere in the foodie blog world these days, cool!

  2. July 29, 2009 at 9:49 PM

    A watermelon curry?! Wow, that’s fascinating!
    I ADORE curries. I’ve always just assumed it originated from India. My fav is the Indian curries. I also have tried the Thai and Japanese ones, but they are way too sweet for me.

  3. July 29, 2009 at 11:37 PM

    I gotta start cooking with curries more. If only I could convince the other members of the household to like them too. Oh well that means more for me.

  4. July 30, 2009 at 3:27 AM

    waw!! What a usufull & very informative post!! Your posts are like posts from an culinary encyclopedie!!!!

    Thanks so much!! Your watermelon curry souds so tasty!!


  5. July 30, 2009 at 3:54 AM

    Fascinating!!!! Only Im really craving a curry now! :)

  6. July 30, 2009 at 6:07 AM

    This is yet another area of cooking in which I have no confidence! The definitions you provided are great to know. Now, I need to practice making more curries.

  7. July 30, 2009 at 6:48 AM

    What a great post to summarize the info on all different curries! I certainly have never had a watermelon curry before – sounds very intriguing!

  8. July 30, 2009 at 8:22 AM

    I immediately thought of India and Japan, though the styles and tastes are so markedly different! I also love all the unusual curry recipes in my Sri Lankan cookery book Serendip. Another excellent resource and one I shall refer to again. How do you find the time for these incredible posts?

  9. admin
    July 30, 2009 at 9:37 AM

    Kenny – Curry fever is indeed everywhere, its crazy once you think of an idea you start seeing it all over the place, is this herd mentality at work?

    Sophia – its very very tasty!

    Jenn – I’m sure with your wonderful cooking you’ll win them over

    Sophie – I think you’ll like the watermelon curry

    Ruth – sorry about that 😉

    Lisa – I am sure you produce incredible curries, the talent you have is amazing

    Natasha – I’d love to see your rift of a watermelon curry

    Helen – my first choices were Thai and Indian, but then I’m not in the throws of planning a trip to Japan =) That book, sounds amazing, and I’d love to get a copy some day. Its amazing how time flies when you’re doing something you enjoy, writing these posts affords me the opportunity to learn about something that interests me.

  10. July 30, 2009 at 1:11 PM

    British and Chinese curry? Never would’ve thunk!

  11. July 30, 2009 at 4:24 PM

    I have to say that I love both my curries and my curry history! Have you read the book called ‘Curry’ by Lizzie Collingham? It’s a fascinating trek through the history of curry and the British in India.

  12. admin
    July 30, 2009 at 7:54 PM

    Duo – the range that curry has spread is so fun to follow

    Spud – its on my nightstand – I got sidetracked by a book on the spice route and another fun read about charlatans.

  13. July 30, 2009 at 9:57 PM

    Watermelon in curry? Wow, that sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the informative post, as always. We forget how many different types of curries there are — from the mild to the quite scorching — and how many cultures share of love of them.

  14. July 31, 2009 at 12:38 AM

    I am having my hair done in a salon while typing this comment, just so you know. :) Still can’t access your site from my home computer. See what lengths I will go to to make sure you know how much your informative post is appreciated? Hehe

    Great post, LouAnn. I also love the melon curry. There’s a similar Thai dish which has almost become obsolete. I love it.

  15. July 31, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    Curry releases endorphins?! So I can give up my workouts and just eat Indian food to get that runner’s high! 😉
    This was a fun post to read! You’ve listed a lot of my favorites here like saag and tikka masala, but I think that Thai green curry (gaeng keow wan) is probably my all-time favorite. I currently have two types of dry curry in my pantry – a Malaysian meat curry (for making curry puffs) and a madras curry from Kalustyans in NYC (general purpose use). And I always have Thai green and red curry paste on hand in the fridge (the red curry paste is vegan and I’ve used it in a spicy butternut squash soup made with coconut milk). Also thought it interesting that all the ‘takeaway’ places (or ‘chippers’)in Dublin had curry chips on their menu, but unfortunately we didn’t get to try them.

  16. admin
    July 31, 2009 at 3:46 PM

    Carolyn – its good, that curry! I had a lot of fun writing this post, because wile I knew a lot, I learned more

    Leela – I truly appreciate the lengths you go to! I’d just be sitting back with my eyes closed, sipping my tea – or looking at a gossip mag. I’ll have to see if I can find anything on the Thai dish, that does sound intriguing. I’ve really gotten into using watermelon in savory dishes. Growing up we only had it one way, and that was carved up at a picnic

    Phyllis – Good luck with that Phillis – I’m not sure with those poutines, although that might just be my metabolism talking. Thai curry is always a favorite for me, ah I envy the NCY foodie names you just throw out =) I’ll have to try the curry chips and I’ll report back. I did try haggis crisps one time, wonder if they taste the same?

  17. July 31, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    My first thoughts associate it with Thailand. However, the very first place I had curry was in curry chicken salad in southern Indiana. Ha, ha! I then evolved to Thai curries and now am finally learning more about the Indian food culture and closely associate as such. How interesting to learn the origin of the term! And what an unusual (in a very good way) recipe. Curry and watermelon, very intriguing!

  18. August 1, 2009 at 11:07 AM

    Very informative post. There is a chicken curry dish in Vietnamese but I learned the Indian version one as well. It has some variation. I make a lot of veggie biryani for my family. Check my version at

    I learned a lot about curry today. Thanks for posting!

  19. August 2, 2009 at 6:25 AM

    What an interesting and wonderful post! I learned so much reading it. Thank you!

  20. admin
    August 2, 2009 at 12:06 PM

    Lori – for me my first curry thought would be India, but that doesn’t make it right, its funny how people gravitate towards different cuisines.

    Jackie – I’ll definitely check out your post, thanks for sharing

    Erica – thanks! I always learn alot about Columbian recipes and culture reading your posts.

  21. August 2, 2009 at 12:13 PM

    Thank you for all of this information, I had given up on making curries in the past because I haven’t been very happy with the results…after this I think I will try again.

  22. Zach
    August 3, 2009 at 7:48 AM

    Fantastic post! Thanks. Curries are my favorite topic in the world of cooking as well as a subject of amateur study, so I read this with relish. I have no doubt that curries and spicy cooking is addictive for many people — it’s doubtless so for me.

    … Liked your reference to Kerala style curries, using curry leaves and coconut. This is often seen in Goan cooking as well. I find that using just a few fresh curry leaves (a bit more if dried) really go a long way. PS – Great blog too, overall!

  23. admin
    August 3, 2009 at 8:27 AM

    VetTech – gotta keep trying, my curries have definitely improved as I’ve gained more experience, and understood the different ingredients. Early on, I tried to wing it and was not satisfied with the results, for me this is one dish where it pays to, at least initially, follow the recipe.

    Zach – ah, thanks so much! If you like this post, stay tuned, as I plan a few more on the topic. Knowing your expertise, that’s high praise in deed!

  24. August 4, 2009 at 9:46 PM

    Why did I not have a professor like you in college, and in my culinary studies? I would have never missed a class…curry is close to my heart! I worked in Indian restaurants, and was a personal chef for two families and have learned so much, but still far form knowing as much as I wish! Great post…

  25. August 6, 2009 at 6:38 PM

    Korma would have to be my absolute favorite whereas Mr. Noodle prefers Thai penang and massamuns. It’s been a while since we’ve had any of these – I think it’s curry time!

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