You’re familiar with the ubiquitous culinary term “curry,” but do you really know what it is? Rice, spiced sauce, vegetables and meat, right? But why are there so many of them, and why are they from all different regions? Is there a commonality between all curries that in fact define them as “curry”? Why are some a thick sauce and some closer to the consistency of a soup? And is curry even technically a dish or is it simply a spice?
To answer the question of what truly defines a curry, it is first important to recognize that there is no exact answer to that question. There is a lot of history to it and it’s worth diving into, foodie or average consumer, to understand and appreciate this dish eaten by humans around the world.
How we know it today, curry is used in its anglicized form and generally refers to any spiced sauce and rice dish. It is derived from the word “kari” from the Tamil language, of the Dravidian language family. Within that language family the word generally refers to vegetables or meat of any kind, raw or boiled, and curry.
So curry is a dish, but there are a few instances in which curry is referred to as a spice. In southern India, where this term originated, curry leaves from the tropical curry tree are a main ingredient. During British occupation, the British East India Company purchased spice blends from Tamil merchants, which would lead to the general use term of “curry powder.” Anglo-Indian cooking would take hold in the 17th century and curry powders would become increasingly commercially produced in the Western world.
Regardless of the term’s various uses, the constant is always spice. Archaeological evidence of mortar and pestle pounded spices dates back to 2600 BCE.
Evidence was found of mustard, cumin, tamarind pods and fennel, processed in order to flavor food. Black pepper, a native spice to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, has been documented in Indian cooking at least since 2000 BCE and exists as an international spice staple – some would argue a necessity.
The Mughal Empire influenced some curries during the 15th century, especially northern curries. Portuguese trade introduced chili pepper, tomatoes and potatoes to India in 1510. During the 19th century, curry was introduced to the Caribbeans by Indians brought there by the British as indentured laborers in the sugar industry. By the 1940s, curry was well established in mainstream British cuisine. From there curry became an established dish of international fusion cuisine.
All that is to say, curry can almost be anything you want it to be as long as it has roots somewhere within all of that overlapping history. Southeast Asian and Indian subcontinent regions have been hailed for their specific curries, and you can also buy curry in a microwave dinner. What is authentic can depend on who you ask, but one thing everybody can agree on is that there are a few techniques you must learn in order to create a delicious curry, regardless of what type you are trying to make.
If you want to dive in and learn more, then it’s best to get cooking.
You won’t regret it. Curries can be complex, or they can be one of the easiest, healthiest meals to make. For vegans and vegetarians, having a signature curry dish is a must for feeding even your pickiest, most carnivorous friends.
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