How Curry Conquered the World

Curry is one of the world’s most beloved dishes. So why, depending on where you are, does it look and taste completely different?

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The history of the word ‘curry’ is a good place to start exploring the dish’s complicated, fascinating history. Some scholars suggests that it comes from the Tamil word ‘kari’, meaning spiced sauce. Others contend that it’s is derived from the French ‘cuire’, meaning to cook. Regardless of its origins, Dr. Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, argues that for early European traders and colonists in India, ‘curry’ was simply "shorthand for 'what Indians eat.'”  

A variation of the word—carel— was adopted by Portuguese traders in the 15th century to describe the spicy, coconut-thickened stews they encountered after landing on the Coromandel Coast of southeast India. Hot chile peppers are probably one of the first ingredients that come to mind when we think of Indian cuisine today, but it was the Portuguese who introduced chile peppers, a new world import, to the Indian subcontinent. While the sauces and stews that the Portuguese first encountered in India were indeed spicy, their heat came from black pepper—at that time so valuable in Europe it was used as currency.  

The Portuguese would remain in India, specifically in Goa, until 1961. By the mid-1700s, however, the British had established a trade monopoly that brought thousands of Britons to India. The various sauces encountered by the British in India were given the name ‘curry,’ an umbrella term for any number of spice blends. In time, specific Indian dishes were adapted to suit British tastes. Curry powder, for example, was a British invention, developed as a generic, one-step spice blend and marketed to emigrants missing the flavors of Southern India. One of its uses during the 18th and 19th century was as a seasoning for a popular dish called Mulligatawny soup, which had been created by Indian chefs to satisfy the British habit of eating soup before a meal. In time, curry dishes would find their way onto the menus of nearly every pub in Britain.   

After the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1834, the demand for indentured servants throughout the British Empire skyrocketed. Indian laborers were sent to sugar plantations in colonies throughout Africa and the Caribbean, bringing with them culinary traditions that would be transformed by available ingredients. Dishes like Jamaican Coconut Curry are a culinary reminder of the Caribbean’s fraught colonial past. 

With Singapore and several Malaysian territories under their control by the mid-19th century, the British tightly regulated trade throughout Southeast Asia. Everywhere the British went, curry followed. Pre-colonial culinary influences in Singapore and Malaysia included Indonesian, Thai, and Chinese elements. These, combined with British culunary traditions, intersected to create contemporary Singaporean cuisine including a wide array of curries. Later, the British military introduced curry to Japan, where it is still wildly popular today.

Still, not all of the foods we call curry followed British trade routes. Thai and Indonesian ‘curries’ predate Anglo-Indian curries by hundreds of years. What we call Thai curry, the Thai call “kaeng,” meaning a soupy dish containing chiles, shallots or onion, shrimp paste, garlic and sometimes lemongrass, galangal and coconut milk. As with India, it was the Portuguese who introduced chiles to Thailand through trade. Thai curries are unique from Indian curries in several ways. While Indian curries tend to require dry spices, Thai curries rely on fresh ingredients for heat and flavor. They’re rarely dry and typically served with rice.    

Indonesian Rendang curry, which is made with meat, spices and a high quantity of coconut milk, is thought to have originated with the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra. Though today it is typically made with beef, it was initially made with water buffalo—an important animal to the Minangkabau. Because water buffalo meat was tough, rendang initially required a very long cooking time. In fact, “rendang” comes from the word “merendang,” meaning slow cooking. Traditionally, rendang was cooked until all liquid had been absorbed, then fried until blackened to preserve the meat for long periods. Today it’s usually eaten before all liquid is absorbed. Rendang was recently chosen as the number one dish of the World's 50 Most Delicious Foods, according to a poll of 35,000 people conducted by CNN International

As universal as curry has become, you might wonder whether the word is used at all in India today. The answer to that question is more complicated than it seems. Curry powder does not exist in India—the closest approximation to it would be Garam Masala. That’s because what we call ‘curry is ‘masala’ in some Indian languages—it’s a generic term meaning ‘spice blend.’ For this reason, there are several spice blends called ‘masala,’ like jeera masala (a cumin blend), or chaat masala (a snack food blend). For some Indians, however, ‘curry’ is part of the lexicon—like the Tamil ‘kari’, it can describe a category of saucy or rustic dishes eaten with rice or roti. To conclude, as Annada Rathi notes, ‘curry’ is perhaps “the most inexactly exact word” for an astounding variety of dishes around the world. Perhaps where words fail, we should use our tastebuds as a jumping-off point to learn more about a dish’s cultural history.

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