Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Curry Isn't Indian

Balu's Indian CuisineImage by DerekSteen via FlickrThat's going to cause a fuss, isn't it? As Gulf News points out today, curry isn't actually Indian - although GN seems to think some people think it's British, which is patent claptrap.

But the fact of the matter is that 'curry', as we know and recognise it, isn’t actually Indian. In fact, the earliest curry recipe in the world comes from Iraq. Sumerian tablets dating back to 1700BC make the first mention of a meat cooked in a spiced sauce and served with bread. The Romans, too, used spiced sauces – and actually liked to cook meat in two sauces – a cooking sauce and a serving sauce. They also used a disgusting mess of fermented Mackerel guts called liquamen, which we'd possibly recognise through a remote cousin, nam pla or fish sauce.

And then we have the fact that curry has travelled so far East and West. Alongside the marvellous explosion of tastes, textures and experiences to be had from the richly varied cuisines of India, we can trace the movement of curry from Southern India and Sri Lanka across to Asia, with Malay, Indonesian and Thai curries sharing a tendency towards coconut bases and mixing fish sauces and pastes as a flavouring. Japan has its curries, too.

The word ‘curry’ itself is widely acknowledged to have originated in Tamil, where the word ‘kari’ means a sauce or vegetable in sauce. While there are similar words in most Indian dialects, including ‘karahi’ and ‘kadhai’, a round bottomed, double-handled pan, the idea of cooking meat in rich, spiced sauces filtered through to Europe from the Middle East – and possibly into India from the Caucasus. The Romans brought back spices from their Middle Eastern adventures, including the spice they called ‘laser’ and which we know better as asafoetida or, in Hindi, ‘heeng’. Did it move East or West? We may never truly know...

The great movements of people, cultural influences and wealth that took place across Europe and the Middle East through the establishment of Muslim caliphate in Spain, the Crusades and the collapse of the Byzantine Eastern Empire also changes in the way people saw food. By the fourteenth century, the French and British were cooking with many of the ingredients that we associate with curries today. The use of ginger, galangal, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cardamom and aniseed, as well as pepper, can be dated back to the dark ages. All of these ingredients were discovered in the Middle East, on their way from the rich spice groves of southern India and Indonesia. The popularity of these spices, and the race to acquire monopolies in the highly lucrative trade in them, shaped much colonial history – and saw the Dutch, Portugese, Spanish and British battling for control of the land and seas alike.

We can find early Medieval references in British recipes to ‘cury’, a sixteenth century Dutch reference to ‘Carriel’ and a seventeenth century Portugese spice powder called ‘caril’. Throughout our history, throughout the world, we’ve been enjoying curry – meat and spices cooked together with a sauce.

The curry world map
The cuisines of the Indian subcontinent are, as you’d expect from a country with such a huge area and diversity of regions, incredibly varied. From the vegetarian dishes of the mountainous regions of North Eastern India, Nepal and Baltistan and the Northwestern India areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, we find richer dishes as we move to richer lands, with Mughlai and Kashmiri cuisines, the vegetarianism of Gujarati cuisine gives way to the richer Muslim influences of Delhi and Hyderabad. Mughlai cuisine, in particular, is important in that it shows the clear influence of centuries of Muslim domination in central India, the melding of the rich, fruit-based cookery of Persia with the spices and sauces of India. The resulting cuisine is seldom less than stunning, if at times – as befits the food of kings, rich beyond belief!

Moving south, we see Goan curries clearly showing the massive influence of Portugese colonisation, a mixture of influences that resulted in the famed ‘Vindaloo’ curry, based on a Portugese method of cooking with vinegar. It’s perhaps worth noting that ‘Vindalho’ curries in India are much milder than the fearsome concoction sold in British curry-houses.

Moving south to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there is more use of coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves to create curries that often can seem almost Thai in their nature. This influence stretches into Sri Lankan cuisine and across into Malay curries, which reflect a similar use of ingredients such as galangal, lemon grass and ginger in a base of coconut milk. From Thailand’s highly fragrant curries, now dominated by the mixture of the sea (thanks mainly to the ubiquitous nam pla, or fish sauce), kaffir lime, lemongrass and coconuts we can move across to Indonesian classics such as ‘rendang’ a dish of beef cooked in a reduced coconut sauce mix. While Chinese curries are based on the Malay/Singaporean flavours, the Japanese were actually introduced to curry, now a popular national dish, by the British!

We have, in Thailand, the deliciousness of the 'massaman' curry, closer to the dark richness of Indian curries than the light heat of other Thai curries - and for a reason, too - 'massaman' is from 'Mussulman' or Muslim, this curry is packed with culinary influences brought to the East out of India.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Curry has its adherents in South Africa, where immigrant populations of workers from India, principally Goa, brought their cuisine – resulting in unique mixtures such as ‘bunny chow’, a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with steaming hot, spicy curry. And, of course, curry is a part of Khaleeji cookery, too, where the use of a ‘masala’, or spice mixture, finds the Khaleeji ‘Baharat’. The addition of ingredients such as ‘loomi’, dried lemons, to these milder masalas yields a taste that is uniquely of the Gulf – but that is, nevertheless, still ‘curry’ and therefore, strangely enough, would have been recognised in Medieval France and England!

Here. A Fat Expat Curry Flurry!


Chicken Korma

Chicken Tikka

Chicken Dhansak

Chicken Kadhai

The 'British National Dish' Chicken Tikka Masala (Recipe One) and (Recipe Two)

Rajasthani Kebabs

Birmingham's own - Chicken Balti and Balti Paste

Thai Red Chicken Curry


Lamb Matsaman Curry

Beef Madras

Beef Rendang

Beef Rendang Brochettes

Kakori Ke Kebab



Katcha Channa


Cucumber Curry Salad

Red Mung Dal

Tarka Dal

Pineapple Raita

Dry Potato Curry

Vegetable Biriani

Mung Dal With Green Chilies


A Collection of curries from Sri Lanka

A Chuckle of Chutnies with a Pile of Poppadums

And last, but by no means least, a British Army Mess Curry! :)

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I Live in a Frying Pan said...

Great, extremely informative article! I'd never have guessed that curry originated in Iraq.
It always frustrates me to hear when people say, "Oh I love curry!"...and I'm thinking, "Yeah, what kind exactly...??" There are so many different types, and people often forget that curry is a generic word, not just a specific reference to curries that they've tried in the past.

Anyhow, next time someone says something like that, I'm forwarding them this article!

Komodo said...

Biriani = Turkic bir yany -one fire...it's cooked in a single pan.

currybadger said...

I vote for massaman curry. Cool post.