Spice of life

The story of curry – in all its di­verse forms – is the story of glob­al­i­sa­tion, writes Steve White

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - TASTE -

In its count­less forms, the hum­ble curry is eaten by hun­dreds – if not thou­sands – of mil­lions ev­ery day. Rel­a­tively few call it curry, how­ever. The word it­self is thought to orig­i­nate from the Tamil word kari, mean­ing a sauce com­pris­ing meat and/or veg­eta­bles cooked with spices. While it is syn­ony­mous with In­dian and Thai food in par­tic­u­lar, its de­riv­a­tives are re­garded as na­tive dishes to peo­ples around the world.

It helps that this aro­matic blend, based on onions, gin­ger and (usu­ally) gar­lic, aug­mented by a mix of herbs, roots and seeds, brings the per­fect lift to the ba­sic carbs that tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nate most di­ets. Its sauce melds per­fectly with rice; if bread is your sta­ple, you can dunk your naan, cha­p­ati, dosa or puri – or even en­case your curry within the bread; noo­dles – wheat or rice based – work too.

The base to any curry are onions cooked in oil or ghee (clar­i­fied but­ter), along with gin­ger and, of­ten, gar­lic. Softened and translu­cent, the onions give a paler curry; cook un­til they cara­malise to darken and sweeten the mix. Then in go the pow­dered spices.

In the West, many buy pre-mixed curry pow­der but this tends to pro­duce more generic cur­ries, with a lighter colour thanks to the large pro­por­tion of turmeric. Bet­ter is to have a range of favourite pow­dered spices at hand to ex­per­i­ment with, but for the most flavour­ful re­sults, noth­ing beats grind­ing your own spices with mor­tar and pes­tle. That way you don’t lose any of the oils that seep out as you pul­verise the whole seeds into grains.

Ev­i­dence of the use of a pes­tle and mor­tar in mak­ing spice mixes has been found in the ru­ins of the In­dus Val­ley city of Mo­henjo-daro, dat­ing back to 2600BC. At first these blends would have been lim­ited in scope, but the story of curry is the story of glob­al­i­sa­tion. As civil­i­sa­tions grew and de­vel­oped, their mer­chants criss­crossed the great land­masses of Eu­rope and Asia, bring­ing the scent of ex­otic spices to for­eign lands and cre­at­ing star­tling new flavours to tit­il­late the taste­buds of na­tions ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence won­ders from newly dis­cov­ered worlds.

By the Mid­dle Ages it had been noted that not only did spices taste great, but they ac­tu­ally seemed to help keep food ed­i­ble longer – some­thing we know is true to­day, with spices in­clud­ing cin­na­mon, cloves and mus­tard hav­ing an­timi­cro­bial prop­er­ties. The dis­cov­ery of the Amer­i­cas led to the in­tro­duc­tion of chilli pep­pers, brought to the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and be­yond, where they were quickly em­braced to re­shape the diet.

The Bri­tish im­ported the curry habit as early as the 17th cen­tury, with Lon­don’s first curry house open­ing in 1810. Mean­while, the in­den­tured labour from the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent that the Brits and oth­ers in­tro­duced to plan­ta­tions and farms world­wide, brought their food with them. From the is­lands of the Caribbean, to East and South Africa, curry quickly en­trenched it­self, of­ten “go­ing na­tive” over time by adding a pinch or two of lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.

To­day, the curry jug­ger­naut con­tin­ues to roll. The lat­est move on the part of the Bri­tish to “own” curry is the an­nual World Curry Fes­ti­val, started in 2010. To­day, it strad­dles the neigh­bour­ing cities of Brad­ford and Leeds and lasts a full two weeks. Ap­pro­pri­ately for a culi­nary tra­di­tion whose ori­gins span the globe, the fes­ti­val in­cludes a “Faith in food” pro­gramme that wel­comes all-com­ers to share a meal in a church, mosque, tem­ple or syn­a­gogue.

It’s the ideal recipe for un­der­stand­ing, you might say, for to­day curry is truly global: the shared taste for spicy food is a great lev­eller across coun­tries and cul­tures. In short, curry has be­come a com­fort food with­out bor­ders.


Bri­tain: In to­day’s UK, many would put Thai green curry and In­dian tikka masala on a par with fish and chips as na­tional dishes. Ma­jor royal an­niver­saries have been marked by the cre­ation of Ju­bilee and Corona­tion chicken, both may­on­naise-based sand­wich fillers, while those twin land­marks of fast food – the Chi­nese take­away and the chippy – of­ten of­fer a genre-bust­ing curry sauce to ac­com­pany the more usual fare. There’s also the balti, where the curry is cooked and served in a ca­st­iron pot, and the phaal, es­sen­tially a purée of chillis which owes more to late-night, beer-fu­elled bravado than to any culi­nary tra­di­tion.

In­dia: Myr­iad re­gional dif­fer­ences ex­ist but broadly speak­ing, the north eats thicker cur­ries with un­leav­ened breads, while the south prefers rice and rice-flour breads with thin­ner, spicier cur­ries. Coun­try­wide, most dishes are wa­ter-based rather than us­ing co­conut milk – the palm­fringed coasts of Ker­ala be­ing a ma­jor ex­cep­tion. In­ter­est­ingly, vin­daloo, a favourite of lagered-up curry fan­boys, is thought to de­rive from the Por­tuguese words for its two orig­i­nal defin­ing in­gre­di­ents: wine and gar­lic. Other well­trav­elled recipes in­clude ro­gan josh, a lamb dish from Kash­mir coloured with chill­ies and the flow­ers of the cockscomb plant; and the ko­rma, a slow-cooked dish us­ing yo­ghurt. Once of the Moghul court and of vari­able heat, to­day it is curry-house short­hand for a mild, creamy curry.

Pak­istan: Sim­i­lar to north­ern In­dian styles for the most part, with plenty of lamb and mut­ton dishes. Karahi is a lo­cal va­ri­ety that is cooked in a wok-like pan, while dis­tricts closer to Afghanistan in­cor­po­rate more dried fruit and nuts in their cook­ing.

Nepal: Far and away the coun­try’s most com­monly con­sumed meal is dal bhat, a thin lentil soup

ac­com­pa­nied by rice that is also pop­u­lar in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries.

Tarkari, veg­etable cur­ries, are also pop­u­lar, of­ten ac­cented with asafoetida. Meat cur­ries usu­ally use chicken or mut­ton.

Bangladesh: His­tor­i­cally, most Bri­tish curry houses have been run by Bangladeshis, and im­mi­grants from Syl­het district in north­east Bangladesh are thought to have been the very first. The dom­i­nant style is Ben­gali, us­ing mus­tard and mus­tard seeds.

Sri Lanka: While many dishes are sim­i­lar to those across the wa­ter in south­ern In­dia, the is­land’s cur­ries are of­ten a lit­tle more fiery and more likely to fea­ture seafood. So syn­ony­mous is it that the term “rice and curry” is used to mean a meal, though the rice may fea­ture in the form of flour used in the na­tive hop­pers (pan­cakes) and string hop­pers (noo­dles).

Mal­dives: Un­sur­pris­ingly in this is­land na­tion, fish is a ma­jor in­gre­di­ent, with tuna curry, mas

riha, be­ing ubiq­ui­tous. Veg­e­tar­i­ans be­ware: even some veg­etable cur­ries have a piece of fish added to lend a lo­cal tang.

Myan­mar: Three forms dom­i­nate in dif­fer­ent re­gions: the west fol­lows more In­dian tra­di­tions; the east hews to a Thai model; but in the cen­tre of the coun­try, around the tra­di­tional power bases, the two are blended into a sophisi­cated cui­sine for royal palates that fea­tures plenty of sour and salty notes.

Thai­land: The most fa­mous trio of red, yel­low and green cur­ries is just the be­gin­ning, with re­gional vari­ants and dishes that in­dulge the lo­cal love of sour tastes to bal­ance the pre­dom­i­nant co­conut milk base. All start from a paste com­monly fea­tur­ing shrimp paste, lemon­grass and co­rian­der. An­other char­ac­ter­is­tic of Thai cur­ries is the use of more fresh veg­eta­bles and herbs in­stead of dried spices.

Cam­bo­dia: Though bet­ter known for soups and noo­dle dishes, sam­lar kari is a mild co­conut milk curry with chicken and sweet pota­toes of­ten eaten at spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Cam­bo­di­ans, like Thais, also use a paste of mixed spices, called kroe­ung, as the base of many dishes.

Malaysia: Pure tra­di­tions live on in the large eth­nic In­dian mi­nor­ity, but Chi­nese and Malay in­flu­ences have pro­duced amal­gams of flavours that shift from town to town ac­cord­ing to the mix of eco­nomic, re­li­gious and cul­tural forces at play. Sta­ples range from the sim­ple dip­ping sauce in roti canai to com­plex cur­ries that typ­i­cally bal­ance sweet co­conut milk bases with shrimp paste, turmeric, tamarind and chilli.

In­done­sia: The ar­chi­pel­ago’s geo­graphic ex­tent pro­vides room for many culi­nary tra­di­tions. Curry vari­a­tions range from kari ayam (chicken curry) and kari kamb­ing (lamb curry) to the iconic Padang dish ren­dang. Usu­ally cooked un­til the sauce caramelises around the meat, it owes its fame in part to the porta­bil­ity and long shelf life this al­lows.

Ja­pan: In the 1880s, a Ja­panese Navy doc­tor copied the Bri­tish Royal Navy and pre­scribed curry as part of a more var­ied diet to guard against beriberi among sailors. Fri­day has been curry day on board all Ja­pan Mar­itime Self-De­fense Force ships ever since. The dish is now widely eaten, pop­u­lar for its sim­plic­ity com­pared to more tra­di­tional dishes. The sauce is sold as solid blocks, pow­der and in vac­uum packs, tend­ing to be sweet and pep­pery. It’s most com­monly en­joyed over rice, but is also eaten with udon noo­dles or – Ja­panese in­ge­nu­ity be­ing what it is – sand­wiched in bread and baked into dough­nuts. South Pa­cific: The In­dian pop­u­la­tions of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have pop­u­larised spiced stews with co­conut milk, typ­i­cally with lamb, mut­ton or chicken.

South Africa: Natal has a curry tra­di­tion dat­ing back even longer than that in the UK, with Dur­ban curry a par­tic­u­lar style, us­ing garam masala and toma­toes. South Africans also la­dle curry into whole loafs of bread to make “bunny chow”.

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