Spice of life
The story of curry – in all its diverse forms – is the story of globalisation, writes Steve White
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.
CURRY’S GLOBAL HOTSPOTS
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”.