CURRY. The term "curry" is an Anglicized spelling of Tamil kari, a general term for any spiced sauce, or in some south Indian dialects, an old word for black pepper. There is no fixed recipe for curry, and the Indians themselves generally refer to this broad range of spice preparations as masala, such as the powdered garam masala of the north, chat masala (tart and salty), kala masala (black curry), and dhansak masala (hot Parsi curry). These can be blends of powdered or whole spices and seasonings, wet or dry mixtures, mild or hot, depending on preference and regional style of cooking. As a rule, northern Indians favor dry powders, while in the South, pastes are more common. Most Indians prefer to make their spice mixtures fresh from raw or green ingredients, and this is one reason why recipes prepared in India taste so differently when made abroad.
However, curry, not masala, is now used the world over as a symbol for the spicy food of India, and especially for flavorings made for export, with powders based on such key ingredients as ground mustard seed, turmeric, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek. Cinnamon, cardamom, and chili peppers may also be added, as well as a variety of other flavorings. Most commercial curry powders are yellow, due to turmeric, a spice often connected with magic and ritual in traditional India. In spite of their universal appeal, spicy foods were condemned by most of India's ancient religions and forbidden to those seeking an austere and virtuous life. Curried foods were, therefore, equated with luxurious living.
Judging from the poems extolling them, the concept of serving a spicy sauce over rice is extremely old in India—there are references to crab and vegetable curries from ancient Jaffna in the south, but the term "curry" was not used to describe them. The Portuguese may have been the first Europeans to mention this type of cookery as early as 1502, but it was the Greek and Roman traders who first encountered it many centuries earlier. The traders are mentioned in Tamil accounts, which make it clear that they were quite fond of south Indian cookery, at least along the coast where they had established trading ports. The use of spice mixtures to flavor sauces, however, was not strange to either the Greeks or Romans, and such common curry herbs as cumin and fenugreek were actually introduced to India from the Mediterranean at a very early date.
The earliest reference to curry in English appeared in a 1598 Dutch travel account, but it was English cookbook author Hannah Glasse who first published a curry recipe in 1747, transforming it from a true sauce to a stew. This began the gradual yet steady evolution of curry into a dish quite at odds with its original Indian forms. Both the Dutch and English, through East India trade, spread the popularity of curry far beyond its original borders, but in doing so, they also changed it. The Dutch created the rijstafel and its numerous curried dishes out of their culinary experience in Indonesia. The English did the same with Indian masala.
True Indian-style curried sauce and rice are mentioned in numerous English accounts of life in India, even during the eighteenth century, and this remained a feature of the typical colonial meal; yet when it traveled back to England, it changed into a meat stew with rice added, or into something else altogether—such as the main flavoring for mulligatawny soup. Eliza Acton listed several curry dishes in her Modern Cookery (1847), including a rather telling discussion of curry, along with potted meats—telling because of its positioning among hashes as a supper dish or something for high tea, not a main course. She not only supplied a recipe for curry very similar to the powdered sorts sold in tins during that period, but she also detailed directions for making curried eggs (deviled eggs flavored with curry), curried sweetbreads, and curried oysters.
American cookery books do not trace as avid a taste for curries as their English counterparts, but Eliza Leslie did tackle curry in her New Cook Book (1857), and complained about the common adulterations and the widespread overuse of turmeric and hot chili. She made an interesting remark: "The best curry powder imported from India is of a dark green color, and not yellow or red. It has among its ingredients, tamarinds, not preserved, as we always get them—but raw in the shell. These tamarinds impart a pleasant acid to the mixture. For want of them, use lemon." Leslie was describing a true masala, and she stands out for taking a stance on authenticity mostly lacking in European cookery books of her period. However, her words were to no avail.
Tinned curry powder, imported or imitation, became a standard household spice, because it was an ideal ingredient for dressing up processed foods and the sort of bland preparations championed by the home economics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Suddenly, curry was everywhere, "Beetonized" by the publishers of Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, the culinary bible of the British Empire. Curry met its ultimate apotheosis in the empress of India, the aging Victoria, presided over by Indian manservants and an Indian groom.
On the commercial side, marketing genius E. P. Veerasawmy promoted this lifestyle of the imperial raj as Edwardian chic. His food specialty company (established 1896) and famous restaurant on Regent Street in London (established 1926) became English institutions and synonymous with the "other English cuisine." Veerasawmy was also a champion of authenticity in his culinary writings. In Indian Cookery (1957), he said about curry: "Curries should always be served in separate dishes and never with rice as a border. The accompaniments of rice with curry are usually Bombay ducks, puppadums, chutneys (various kinds), Indian pickles, and sambals. It is best to eat curry and rice with a dessert spoon and fork. A knife should never be used. A well-cooked curry will not need one."
If curry has undergone a change since then, it has taken its cue from the large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis who have settled in Britain, Africa, South America, and the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. No longer do non-Indians imagine that curry is a flavor peculiar to one rare fragrant spice. The proliferation of Indian-style restaurants, especially the inexpensive ones with highly varied menus, has at least driven home the idea that curried sauces come in many styles and forms. Most importantly, however, is the printed menu itself. All over the world, anywhere English is spoken, Indians prefer to use the term curry, regardless of what they may call their sauces in the homeland.
Brennan, Jennifer. Curries and Bugles : A Memoir and Cookbook of the British Raj. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
"Indian Cookery." In Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, pp. 1267–1280. London: Ward, Lock, 1920.
Veerasawmy, E. P. [alias Ketab]. Indian Cookery. Bombay: Jaico, 1957.
Veerasawmy, E. P. Indian Dishes for English Tables. London: Arco, 1964.
Yule, Col. H., and A. C. Burnell. Hobson-Jobson : A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases. London: Curzon Press, 1985.
William Woys Weaver
cur·ry1 / ˈkərē; ˈkə-rē/ • n. 1. (pl. -ries) a dish of meat, vegetables, etc., cooked in an Indian-style sauce of strong spices and turmeric and typically served with rice. 2. curry powder. • v. (-ries, -ried) [tr.] [usu. as adj.] (curried) prepare or flavor with a sauce of hot-tasting spices: curried chicken. cur·ry2 • v. (-ries, -ried) [tr.] 1. groom (a horse) with a rubber or plastic curry-comb. 2. hist. treat (tanned leather) to improve its properties. ∎ archaic thrash; beat. PHRASES: curry favor ingratiate oneself with someone through obsequious behavior.
curry [Malayalam], condiment much used in India and elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East, in combination with rice, meat, and a variety of other dishes. It is compounded of such spices as turmeric, fenugreek, cloves, cumin, ginger, black and hot red pepper, and coriander. When the pungent leaf of an Indian tree of the rue family is included, the curry powder is used not only as a stimulating flavor, but also for medicinal purposes. Curry paste is made from the slightly acid, jellylike pulp of the tamarind pod, combined with a variety of spices.
See study by L. Collingham (2006).