Many don’t realize that curry is neither a specific spice blend nor a dish in its own right. In the 17th century, when the British occupied India, they fell in love with the local food. In an attempt to navigate the complexities of regional Indian preparations, they anglicized the South Indian Tamil word “kari” into “curry.” Kari (or curry) simply means sauce with spices in it. The term was then used to describe any and all of the myriad broths, soups or preparations Indians made with butter, nuts, vegetables and a multitude of spices. To the British, curry was not only a term that described an unfamiliar Indian approach to food, but also an actual dish. So when the British were leaving India after the colonization, imaginative Indian spice merchants created a blend of four or five basic but well-used spices—such as turmeric, coriander, cumin and chili—and sold it to the Brits as they left. Thus was born the now-ubiquitous curry powder found on store shelves. But the British weren’t complaining! They happily lapped it up, and Indian food continues to be wildly popular in England.
In the broad sense, all of the dishes I am about to describe could be considered curries; however, they are all completely different in appearance, color, consistency, texture and taste. Depending on the region and its language, there are specific names for broths, braises and stews. Also, depending on the spices and other ingredients used, the color could be white, red, brown or yellow. In Gujarat, the mostly vegetarian state where I grew up, kadhi (pronounced “kadhee”) is a mild, fragrant yogurt broth with notes of ginger and cloves and slightly sweetened with jaggery, an unrefined and non-distilled sugar made from dates, cane juice or palm sap. In Punjab, that same kadhi, with the addition of turmeric, is a vibrant yellow, includes onions and chickpea fritters called pakoras and is topped off with hot chili oil. In Sindh, sayel refers to a cardamom-scented rustic preparation of meat or vegetables cooked with chopped onions, tomatoes and ginger. In Goa, vindaloo is a very dark, almost chocolate-colored, hot and spicy stew redolent of clove, cumin and cardamom. In northern India, a korma is a fragrant, creamy, nut-based preparation of meats or vegetables with notes of cinnamon and cloves. In southern India, a saucy preparation of vegetables is called a kolambu; varatha is a dry sauté; sambhar and rasam are light tomato, lentil and kari leaf-scented soups; and kootu is a lentil and vegetable stew. Macher jhol is a soupy, pungent Bengali fish from Eastern India with mustard, black cumin and ginger. And dal—essentially a lentil broth or stew—has hundreds of iterations based on region, family preferences and seasonality. Every state in India has their own staple dal and every family makes their own rendition of those staples. Given that there are about 40-plus lentils used throughout India, dal combinations are simply endless!
When we Indians travel, we take our food culture with us. During the 16th and 17th centuries, when Indian spice merchants traveled to Malaysia, spices combined well with the local flavorings of lemongrass and coconut milk. In Indonesia, stews were made with kaffir leaves and galangal. Migrating Indian laborers have also spread Indian food around the globe very effectively. Curries are the norm in Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and other Pacific islands. Even in South Africa, roti wraps and bread bowls filled with chicken and tomatoes spiked with cumin are sold at street corners. Surprisingly, one country where curry may occupy a position of national importance almost equal to the place of Indian food in Britain is Japan, which has no colonial connection with India. The Japanese love their curry—many train stations and malls in Japan have stalls selling curried rice, noodles and bread. Unrecognizable in India, Japanese curry is made with pre-prepared brown blocks of curry roux (flour and fat tinged with spices), and has been adopted as a warm, sustaining comfort food untouched by ceremony.
As an Indian who was born and raised in India, I can safely say that we almost never use the word “curry,” nor do we use prepared curry powder in our homes. I confess that in an attempt to bridge the gap, I have used, and continue to use, the word on my restaurant menus. Yet, this broad categorization misses the subtle variations and nuances of each preparation, and the strong sense among us Indians about local and almost minute differences in food. We may use 10 to 12 spices in one dish, but they are all added individually and at different times in the preparation. They may be used whole or ground, toasted and crushed, or just popped in oil to release flavor. It’s the magic of these spices and the unique combinations that give so-called “curry” the tremendous appeal it has in today’s food culture.
By Anita Jaisinghani