Food History

The Problem with "Curry"

July 13, 2016

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:

  • Indian spice mix. I associate it more with Indian food rather than Thai food.
  • Yellow spice mix.
  • A creamy sauce of varying spiciness in the color options of green, yellow, or red. Used with meat and/or veggies.
  • Steph Curry, that’s the only thing that comes to my mind.
  • I associate “curry” with Indian food but what I think of is “Japanese curry,” which I grew up eating my whole life.
  • It is a South Indian term used to describe a “sabji [Author's note: It's the word in Hindi used for cooked vegetable dish, dry or saucy, which, confusingly, is also the same word for “raw vegetables.” That is the case in many Indic languages.]
  • American version of Indian food.
  • Punjabi curry.
  • A complex fusion of spices; molded per the dish in question; a sauce made to elevate the favors of the main ingredients into a bread-sopping, finger-licking goodness.
  • Something with gravy!
  • Isn’t curry Indian?

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?

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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.

The idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture.
Lizzy Collingham

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."

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“In what world did this article have bad things to say about the English? Politics have been wrapped up in what we eat ever since Columbus sailed to the Caribbean. ”
— Matt

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.”

They glossed over the regional differences and compressed the staggering heterogeneity and diversity of Indian cooking into a simplistic box.

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.

In my India, curry is never added—it just is.
Raghavan Iyer

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!

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To some people's frustration, I like to talk about food before cooking, while cooking, while eating and of course after eating.


Hanuman@09 May 14, 2021
the article states that there's no term for "curry" in India. well, I absolutely disagree to this particular statement. As an Indian, I have to say that there is a term for curry in India and it is called as "Kadhi" OR "Kadi". I wish you could research more about things like these.
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Tazmin A. May 18, 2017
I love this article and the discussions it's spawned. This is also one of my beefs so I'm thrilled to read all of the above. I've had this conversation with my non-Indian friends as well! My Québécoise ex-mother-in-law made a dip for fondue that consisted of mayonnaise and 'curry powder'. Lol. She was shocked and heartbroken when I told her that Indians didn't use this. And that this bottle she'd bought from the grocery store was cheap crap, consisting mostly of turmeric and fillers. 😂 lol!
Laura415 December 23, 2016
My first experience with curry was decidedly prosaic and probably not at all authentic. I had a roommate you made a yellow curry sauce with veggies and fruits! Sometimes green bananas, sometimes pineapple sometimes both. It was very sweet and savory but spicy. We cooled it down with yogurt mixed in and on top. Over rice it was filing and great tasting. Seems sweet but it had good balance. Wish I had that recipe to play with now that I'm all grown up. Great article!
TerryEStephens August 16, 2016
I live in So. Calif near the LA Suburb of Cerritos which has a very large East Indian enclave. I can assure you that they frequently use 'curry' spices, and that they most definitely are stocked and sold in large quantities in their markets. There is an entire aisle in most of the stored dedicated to Indian spices, curry versions in particular. The Indian Cuisine Restaurants all off a number of dishes that are 'curried'.
TerryEStephens August 16, 2016
Curry (/ˈkʌri/, plural curries) is a dish originating in the cuisine of the Indian Subcontinent. The common feature is the use of complex combinations of spices or herbs, usually including fresh or dried hot chillies. The use of the term is generally limited to dishes prepared in a sauce.[1] Curry dishes prepared in the southern states of India may be spiced with leaves from the curry tree.[2]

There are many varieties of dishes called 'curries'. For example, in original traditional cuisines, the precise selection of spices for each dish is a matter of national or regional cultural tradition, religious practice, and, to some extent, family preference. Such dishes are called by specific names that refer to their ingredients, spicing, and cooking methods.[3] Traditionally, spices are used both whole and ground; cooked or raw; and they may be added at different times during the cooking process to produce different results. The main spices found in most curry powders of the Indian subcontinent are coriander, cumin, and turmeric; a wide range of additional spices may be included depending on the geographic region and the foods being included (fish, lentils, red or white meat, rice, and vegetables).[4] Curry powder, a commercially prepared mixture of spices, is largely a Western creation, dating to the 18th century. Such mixtures are commonly thought to have first been prepared by Indian merchants for sale to members of the British Colonial government and army returning to Britain.

Dishes called 'curry' may contain fish, meat, poultry, or shellfish, either alone or in combination with vegetables. Additionally, many instead are entirely vegetarian, eaten especially among those who hold ethical or religious proscriptions against eating meat or seafood.

Curries may be either 'dry' or 'wet'. Dry curries are cooked with very little liquid which is allowed to evaporate, leaving the other ingredients coated with the spice mixture. Wet curries contain significant amounts of sauce or gravy based on yoghurt, cream, coconut milk, coconut cream, legume purée, or broth.
Ritu P. August 14, 2016
As an Indian girl growing up in the States who has to field these sorts of questions frequently... thank you for writing this article. :)
Scribbles August 11, 2016
I love the history of food! Most everything we eat in the US originated elsewhere and we've put our own spin on it - isn't that what is about? Finding something you like, tweaking it into something you can call your own...and sharing with family and friends. Food is meant to be shared and enjoyed. Thanks for this great article!
Annada R. August 14, 2016
Thanks, Scribbles! Yes, the emotional appeal of any food is not only because it may have been passed to us from our families but also because of the unique ways in which we "tweak" and make each dish our own. And that's the beauty of these "curry" dishes from different countries like Vietnam, Thailand, S. Africa and Caribbean.
Phyllis W. August 11, 2016
While your article was interesting, I am getting a bit tired of politics being thrown into everything. It's great to read tidbits if an area when doing a new recipe, but if one wants to write about history, do it separately. It's obvious both you and the writer don't like the English. I am lucky a friend has been teaching me about the different "curries" without the political comments. I'm teaching her about Italian cuisine without talking American vs real Italian food!
Matt August 14, 2016
In what world did this article have bad things to say about the English? Politics have been wrapped up in what we eat ever since Columbus sailed to the Caribbean.
Karlene August 10, 2016
I grew up in Jamaica and the 'curry' i knew was a yellow/green powder that came from a jar or spice packet. Recent exposure to articles like yours and to cooking channels and websites have taught me how limited my exposure has been (and thanks to local Indian shops I am able to experiment and expand my 'curry' experience :-).. )! Love to read about food and food history. You mentioned that scotch bonnet is from Trinidad. I grew up hearing scotch bonnet was a Jamaican pepper - another 'culturalised' mis-information? Thanks for an interesting read, looking forward to your reply on the scotch bonnet...
Annada R. August 14, 2016
Hi Karlene, thank you so much for your appreciative comment. I would love to make one of the Jamaican curries, haven't tried making them or haven't had a chance to try them in a restaurant too. Can you suggest some recipes?
As far as scotch bonnet pepper is concerned, one of the books that I went through for this article mentioned that scotch bonnet is from Trinidad. But after reading your comment, I did some more research. Most mention scotch bonnet as a Caribbean pepper rather than coming from a country. I will continue my research and keep you updated. BTW, do you use super hot peppers like scotch bonnet in your everyday cooking?
Karlene August 17, 2016
Thanks for the response Annada. Yes, we do use hot peppers in everyday cooking. Definitely in most meat dishes.. the amount of cut pepper used depends on how much heat can be handled by family members. we have different types but scotch bonnet is loved for the flavour which comes with the heat. Those who want more heat will take fresh cut pieces and add to their meals. We drop whole scotch bonnet peppers in soups and in our local rice and peas (cooked in coconut milk - dry coconut blended with water and strained into the pot, and seasoned with skellion, garlic etc). We also have an escovietched fish where the fish is fried then covered in a pickle type sauce - vinegar, water, sugar, pimento berries (allspice), cut pieces of scotch bonnet, carrot, onion, all boiled separately then poured over the hot fried fish. I will gather some jamaican curry recipes and send to you, if you have an email to share please do so. we have many popular jamaican chefs who have written books so i am confident you can try some of those without disappointment :-). Oh, how could i forget our Jerk!! scotch bonnet is highly featured in that seasoning/marinade. this is quite lengthy but i have to mention that Jerk is not all about the seasoning, it also refers to the method of grilling where the meat is smoked/grilled over pimento (allspice) wood after being marinated sometimes overnight. Hope you have had the opportunity to sample some of our local jerk :-).
LYGIA D. August 10, 2016
I come from the west coast where the curries have specific names depending o n the spice mixes- baffad, cafrael, sorpatel, fish curry, different from prawn curry, and the veggie "curries" with each a unique mix of spices
cosmiccook August 10, 2016
Oh yes, although its considered "bad form" in the manners world to do so, EVERY time we get together with friends and family its always about food. And do we get personal about chefs and restaurants here! You'd think we were related to them to hear us discuss chefs dishes, personalities their private life even!
JP August 10, 2016
When I was a child I was served curries of chicken or lamb stewed with chopped up green apples, currents and onions in a "curry sauce." It was served over a bed of rice and with various condements at the table, such as peanuts, shredded coconut, chopped eggs, currents, chutneys, and yogurt. I think my parents called it british curry, or something like that. I have never been able to find a recipe for anything like it.
Gervasia August 10, 2016
Something for the more philosophical side of the conversation and then I'll shut up! Cuisines, like languages, are always changing, picking up new influences and influencing others. The concept of "bastardization" is extremely judgemental and assumes that there were identifiably "pure" cuisines that existed in the past. Just for an example, if Indian food was bastardized by the British influence, then it was also bastardized by the introduction of chilies and tomatoes from the Americas by Europeans. (BTW, not cheerleading for colonialism here!)
We have to respect the intelligence and adaptability of Indian chefs who made foods that the British liked, the Chinese who created new dishes for the tastes of many countries they migrated to and where familiar Chinese ingredients were not available. And not to forget the Italian-Americans ... and the African American cooks and chefs who deeply influenced American cooking ... and the Native Americans whose foods became staples of nascent American cuisines. One could go on and on. Celebrate them!
SueD August 10, 2016
When I learned to cook "curry" I was at an ashram back in the '70's. One of the cooks there wanted to learn how to make risen bread (not flat bread) and I wanted to learn to use spices. She was Gujarati and I'm a South Texan. We did not have a common language besides food. She brought out her small red tool kit full of small jars of spices. I brought flour and yeast and sourdough and we taught one another by observation.
Gervasia August 10, 2016
I often use Maesri brand Thai curry pastes (there are many varieties), usually with coconut milk, to improvise quick meals. Not real Thai, but realistic when cooking for two. You can add a pop of fish sauce, some chopped cilantro, etc. I've found the pastes at Vietnamese and Chinese markets. A southeast Asian acquaintance (half Laotian Hmong and half Thai) who'd had a restaurant said that some restaurants use the pastes (he didn't). I've seen other brands of curry pastes in southeast Asian markets, but haven't tried them. I like Maesri because the cans are very small and the contents are clearly not diluted with anything. Unused portions keep well in the freezer. The instructions on the cans are helpful in terms of whether that particular variety of curry would be used with fish or meat, just vegetables, etc. However they seem very strange in terms of quantities; use your commons sense!!
josefernandez August 10, 2016
I love to grind my own spice to make curry, but a friend told me I should use a mortar pestle instead of a machine. Does it make any difference? I don't have mortar this one good What do you recommend if not?
Annada R. August 10, 2016
Though I would not replace my spice grinder with a mortar & pestle, I recommend having one in your kitchen, especially if you like to come up with your own curry paste or spice blend. A mortar pestle allows you to control the consistency of the paste without the need to add any liquid - say in a blender. Of course, if you are using a dry spice blend, nothing like a coffee/spice grinder.
Epsi August 10, 2016
Hi Jose,
It does make a hell of a difference. A blender is like fast and furious style and a mortar and pastel is more zen like - slow and steady - labor of love. On the technical side, a mortar and pestel actually chrushes the spice whereas a blender slices it very thin. You will notice in the case of the mortar and pestel the flavors are brought out more strongly than blended spices. Try it with ginger and garlic and cumin seeds and smell them yourself. The one you chose - Cole & Mason Granite Mortar and Pestle, 5.5-Inch - looks pretty nice. I have a similar one in black as well!
lekha August 10, 2016
Thank you, Annada! Spot on! Hope the world views your article. I am so tired of saying just that.
Annada R. August 10, 2016
Thank you, Lekha! Appreciate your comment!
Merideth K. August 10, 2016
I always grind my own spices before preparing delicious vegan meals. They often contain turmeric, mustard, Sri Lanka cinnamon (the only kind I love), ginger, cumin, chile, and other elements of what's commonly referred to as "curry." Health and peace.
Annada R. August 10, 2016
Thank you for your comment, Merideth!
Subhash R. August 10, 2016
Really, your confusion is of semantics. Really, you were discussing a Term and a Concept together as if they are the same thing. Really, a "Curry" should be considered a Concept and not a narrow and specific dish. You have mentioned Tamil and Kanada words but omitted the Telugu word "Kura" or "Cura", closest word (phonetically) to "curry". The word "Cura" means a certain dish prepared in a specific manner and it could be a meat (poultry included) poultry, or vegetable dish or both combined. For Indians, the word "Curry" is a general term like "Cura". No Indian will mistake a Rasam or soup or a salad or a dessert to be a curry! And "curry powder" is really nothing but a few spices mixed together and ground. Before the various Indian Spices were made available individually in the West, the one thing that provided the "masala" (mixture of spices) to make Indian spicy dishes (curries- plural of curry).

There is no doubt that most Indian Spices originate from South India, especially Kerala.

Subhash C Reddy