When you think of curry, which country or region comes to mind?
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?
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
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:
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.
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)
- coconut milk
- 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
- 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.]
- tamarind (imbli)
- lime (nimbu)
- amchoor (dried mango powder, also spelled ‘amchur’)
Fresh herbs and spices
- ginger – mainly used fresh except in the Kashmir region where dried is also used
- coriander (cilantro) leaves
- curry leaves
- bay leaves
- kaffir lime leaves
- chillies – note the green ones are considered hottest
- 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)
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.