What is curry?


What is curry? Big question. A highly debated and controversial question, especially about its origins. I will try to answer it for you as best I can — well, I had better, since I’ve named this blog Big Apple Curry!

‘Curry’ is commonly used to describe an Indian dish or a blend of Indian spices that are used to season a dish in order for it to be then called a curry. Probably the most famous curry in the world, bar none, is ‘Chicken Tikka Masala.’ Boneless chicken is marinated overnight in thick yogurt and spices, cooked deep inside a screaming hot clay oven until tender, and then folded into a rich, buttery, tomato-laden sauce thickened with onions, garlic, and ginger, and cashews, scented with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and dried fenugreek leaves, and finished with more butter, and cream. It is actually a dish that was invented in the UK, adapted from two classic Indian dishes, ‘Chicken Tikka’ (pieces of marinated boneless chicken then cooked as kebabs) and ‘Murgh Makhani (Butter Chicken).’ Today, ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ is on nearly every local pub menu in England.

‘Curry’ is also commonly used to describe Indian-rooted dishes that have been adapted and transformed by local ingredients in other parts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan, Africa, and the Caribbean. Consider a ‘Thai Red Curry’ with tender coconut milk and lemongrass, creamy and red, with al dente slivers of fresh zucchini, bamboo shoots, and bell peppers. Or think of a ‘Trinidadian Roti’ a large, soft and pillowy flatbread gently stuffed with stewed curried chicken and potatoes imparting a deep yellow hue from the golden turmeric. Both dishes taste wildly different, but you can almost put your finger on that thin, common thread connecting them. That’s because they’re both curries, and share some common roots.

India’s historical position at the center of the global spice trade (Source: Madhur Jaffrey’s From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail cookbook)

It has been suggested that the British created the term “curry” in the 18th century to describe Indian spice blends and mixtures they ate in India and took back and forth to England during the British Empire’s rule of India from 1613-1947. Some say the south Indian Tamil word ‘kari’ which means ‘sauce’ is the root of the word that was then anglicized as ‘curry.’ Japanese curry for instance, is called ‘kare’. Hence, curry is also a blend of spices and herbs that season a dish of legumes, vegetables, or meat, in order for it to be then called, a curry. Many of you may have ‘curry powder’ in your cupboard, which the British initially requested Indian cooks create for easy transport back to Europe for both consumption and export. The concept of curry powder then spread throughout the world, driven by European colonization and trade routes that created the spice trail. I collect different curry powders to try them out. Like me, some of you may have the red and yellow tin of S & B’s ‘Oriental Curry Powder’ found in most Chinese grocery stores. All this time I thought it was Chinese, but it’s actually from Japan. The impact of colonization and the proliferation of spices are most everywhere you look.

Funnily enough, Indians don’t always talk in terms of ‘curry’ to describe their cooking or spice mixtures. Rather, we talk more in terms of ‘masala’ which is a blend of any number of whole and ground spices, combined with fresh and dried herbs. That said, Indians do use the word ‘curry’ of course, because over time, it’s become an easy, catchword to describe any Indian dish or Indian-adapted dish in many countries. At the end of the day, amidst the controversy about the original roots of ‘curry’, which someone could devote to a PhD thesis, I think of it very positively in today’s modern world. It captures the essence of culinary globalization (and sharing the common, complex ties of colonization, if you are from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean) and connects us in ways that I welcome and cherish. Today, most of us eat a variety of different things in one day alone — you could have Irish oatmeal for breakfast, Japanese sushi for lunch, and an American cheeseburger for dinner. Whether you live in a big cosmopolitan center like New York City or in the countryside, our own meals and dinner tables haven’t just become global, they are global. Compared to 40 years ago, you can easily find major Indian spices and herbs in your local grocery store, Target, Walmart, or Williams Sonoma. See, today’s world is really just a Big Apple Curry!

I love history. I get it from my dad. If he hadn’t become an engineer like most Indian men of his generation, he says he would have become a history professor. Here is an example of one of the first known publications of ‘curry’ in English, “The Art of Cookery” by Hannah Glasse in 1747. When searching for it, I saw it come up on a Jane Austen-related web site, which made me pause, a bit puzzled — then it hit me. See the by-line below? It says “By a Lady” rather than her name, Hannah Glasse. Because back then, who could ever imagine a woman authoring anything in her own name, even a cookbook? Ah, how times have changed for all of us.

“How to Make a Currey the India Way”

From Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747)

“Take two small chickens and cut them as if for fricassee. Wash them clean and stew them in about a quarter of water for 5 minutes, then strain off the liquor and put the chicken in a clean dish; take three large onions and chop them small and fry them in about 2 ounces of butter and then put the chickens in and fry them until they are brown; take a quarter of an ounce of turmeric, a large spoonful of ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate, strew all these ingredients over the chickens while frying, then pour in the liquor and let it stew for about half an hour, then put in the quarter of a pint of cream and serve it up. The ginger, pepper and turmeric must be beat very fine.”

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