How would you define “curry”? What comes to mind when you hear the word?
I asked a group of my friends, making sure there was a healthy diversity in their eating habits and background, that question and here are the answers I got:
The last answer drives me insanely crazy—even more so when someone asks, “How do you make curry?” My response: “What do you mean ‘curry’?” The question that then follows is: “Isn’t curry Indian?” with the subtext of: How come you don’t know what curry is if you’re from India?
That’s when I feeling like screaming from the rooftops, “Curry is not Indian!”; “Curry powder is not Indian!”; and “You will not find curry powder in Indian kitchens!”
Even though the word “curry” is deeply associated—even perceived to be synonymous—with Indian cuisine, “curry” is not an Indian creation. There is no word for “curry” in Indian languages; you will not find curry powder stocked in Indian homes and grocery stores; and contrary to popular perception, Indians do not eat curry every day. Curry has Indian roots, curry is identified with Indian food, but curry is not Indian. Let’s try to solve this puzzle.
"The idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture," Lizzy Collingham explains In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors. The British controlled India from early 1600s to 1947, the first two-hundred years or more establishing and consolidating control through trade, the latter years through direct political rule—and the story of curry starts there.
In an effort to be perceived as the ruling class rather than simply traders, the officials of the East India Company (formed by the British to carry out trade in India) employed as many Indians as they could as cooks, cook’s assistant, butlers (khansama), waiters, and even masalchi (a person whose only job was to grind spices). This platoon of domestic help rolled out copious amounts of food twice a day for their British masters and their friends and family. Collingham explains how “large bowls of curry and rice were placed along the table in between the turkeys and beef.”
Mind you, the Indians had specific names for each and every dish of theirs (rasam, korma, rogan josh). Not only did the British call all these unfamiliar dishes “curry,” but once the British went home and had to satisfy their cravings using only the spice mixes prepared by their cooks back in India, they sprinkled these spice powders onto anything and everything and called the dish "curry."
It is important to remember that when Indian cooks prepared these dishes for their British employers, they were already toned-down versions of what they themselves ate in terms of heat and spice. And so the overall effect in the final dish made by the British was a watered-down version of the original, sometimes even drastically different. Because at that time, no self-respecting Indian cook would have thought of using a pre-made spice mix themselves. There was no technique comparable to roasting and grinding the spices fresh, just before adding them to dishes.
So while Indians were obsessing over their regional differences, the name “curry” stuck, according to Madhur Jaffrey (in Curries to Kebabs) for ease, for the lack of a better word, and above all, for the ability to evoke a simple idea: a catch-all word to describe a saucy or dry mix of spices, vegetables, and meat.
Our English word “curry” comes from Kannada word “karil” and the Tamil word “kari,” both meaning spice mix and the meaty, saucy, vegetable dishes made from that spice mix. Tamil is the language of Tamil Nadu and Kannada of Karnataka, both states in south India, where the East India Company first established its base. Collingham explains that as “the words karil and kari were reconfigured into Portuguese and English they were transformed into ‘caril’ and ‘caree’ and eventually into the word ‘curry,’ which the British then used as a generic term for any spicy dish with a thick sauce or gravy from any part of India.”
Collingham furthers that British used the term curry to describe dishes from every Indian region. This was a boon as well as a curse in disguise: A curse because they glossed over the regional differences and compressed the staggering heterogeneity and diversity of Indian cooking into a simplistic box; a boon because a simple, adaptable idea of curry could emerge out of their loose understanding of the infinite nuances, differences, and subtleties.
Curry represented a pan-Indian cuisine, and I believe that because it ignored many of the complications and differences in cooking styles in India, it was seen as more open to interpretation. Mina Holland in World on a Plate makes a similar case: She believes that Indian food is more open to variation than any other cuisine in the world because of the large number of spices and their infinite permutations and combinations, as a result of which “standard” versions of dishes don’t really exist.
But it's not just westerners who use the term "curry." In a case of reverse-borrowing, where the approximate becomes so pervasive that it turns into the de facto word, Indians call their dishes curries while referring to them in English, notwithstanding the fact that they are referred to by their individual names in the native language. In Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail, Madhur Jaffrey elaborates: "For the purpose of this book, I have designated as a curry any Indian or Indian-style dish with a sauce; just as the British colonialists, who controlled India for centuries before I was born, defined it."
Adding to confusion, the British, hooked onto the addictive taste of spices, eventually started making their own spice mixes: That was curry powder. So now, the ingredient was “curry powder” and the result was “curry” (not unlike instances in Indic languages where both the raw ingredient and the finished dish go by the word “vegetable”).
A spice poster I have at home defines curry powder as “a westernized spice blend that captures the essence of India’s cuisines,” an explanation that says a lot. Curry powder was an attempt by the British to capture all the Indian cuisines into a bottle, a pan-Indian spice mix. The number of spices in curry powder is extensive, much greater than in garam masala, sambhar masala, or panch phoran (the spice mixes of North, South, and East India, respectively).
Even today, confusion stems from the fact that “curry” and “curry powder” are used interchangeably. To make matters worse, curry powder is frequently abbreviated in the course of talking: “Add some curry.” Raghavan Iyer has an apt response to this: “In my India, curry is never added—it just is.”
This complexity comes before you even start to consider that many Asian dishes outside of India get grouped under the umbrella of “curry," too. (If you were to ask me, in fact, what I think of when I hear the word, I would say Thai curry because I would never call anything I grew up eating by the name.) Curries are popular in all Southeast Asian countries as well as in South Africa, the Caribbean, East Africa, and even Japan.
According to Jaffrey, the proliferation of curry began at the end of the eighteenth century and coincides with the British imperial ambitions, which drove a massive influx of Indian labor across the globe: As the British flag spread its tentacles and sent Indian laborers to do back-breaking labor on plantations around the world, local ingredients married Indian cooking techniques and resulted in a variety of regional curries.
Thai curries, for example, are the result of Thai love for herbs like lemongrass and kaffir lime, along with the richness of coconut milk and meats, combined with Indian spices like coriander and cumin; Caribbean curries mix Indian spices with Guyanese and Trinidadian chile peppers (like Scotch bonnets) and the popular meat of the area: goat; and even in Japan, where was no direct imperial connection or sizable population of Indian laborers, there was still a historical love of curry introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century by chefs who accompanied British traders.
Curry Cuisine: Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia rounds up the word in a sweeping yet precise explanation: “Dating back centuries, and named by the globe-conquering, adaptive and culinary cross-pollinating British, curry has now morphed into a major part of world cuisine. Whether broth or paste, dried powder or ground fresh ingredients, packaged or just harvested from the garden, hot-pepper-laden or dominated by pungent herbs, stew or soup, plated, served in a bowl, or served as a sandwich; it is somehow curry just the same.”
Over the years, whenever I’ve seen Indian dishes with perfectly good native names labeled “curry,” I’ve cringed and launched into a tirade about curry and its origin. But in the course of this article, it has dawned on me that “curry” is the most ambiguous and therefore the most flexible word, a broad term that conveys the idea of cooked, spiced, saucy or dry, vegetable, meat, or vegetable and meat dish in the most appropriate manner available.
But still, it’s important that not all Indian food be lumped under curry: There are twenty-nine states and seven union territories in India. Not only is the cuisine of West, South, North, and East India completely different, but food habits in India may vary every hundred kilometers, too. It’s completely possible for inhabitants of one region to be blissfully ignorant of the food habits of another region. In such a land of culinary variety, meat, vegetable, meat plus vegetable, and lentil dishes in various combinations from all across the country get labeled as “curries.” The most precise way to refer to a dish is by its native name—“curry” is the most inexactly exact word.
What's the most recent dish you've made, or eaten, that you've referred to as a "curry"? Tell us in the comments below!