Would it blow your mind to know that “curry” is a western term derived to classify a variety of dishes across a wealth of cultures that vary from sweet to hot, meat-heavy and vegetarian, stewed and dry as a bone?
If you’ve ever been completely lost looking at a menu at your local curry house, then probably not. Terms like vindaloo, tandoori, kofta, and phaal can make ordering a challenge, and sometimes even the most seasoned (pun intended) patrons can wind up with a completely unfamiliar, sinus shatteringly spicy dish.
Westerners’ love of curry dates back to the early 19th century, when British Imperialists brought back spicy recipes and exotic stories from far away lands. By the mid-1800s, even Queen Victoria was eating curry, though she had never actually been to India.
But what the queen and her countrymen were calling curry, which to this day is characterized by Westerners as a spicy stew employing curry powder, is actually a collection of regional dishes whose preparation varied from town to town and even family to family.
The word “curry” was adopted from the Tamil word “kari”, which simply meant “sauce”. Curry powder was not traditional in India and is believed to have been a concoction mixed up by merchants to sell to Imperialists as a souvenir. But the British fell in love with their souvenir, and curry culture quickly spread from England to the rest of the world, including the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and of course, America, though as late comers to the game, we’re probably the most confused in the world as to about what constitutes curry.
So, what is curry?
For the purposes of this article, let’s call it a dish based on a complex spice mixture usually involving chilies. Curries can be wet (yogurt or coconut milk-based) or dry (cooked with no, or very little, liquid and left coated in the spice mixture). They can contain meat or be vegetarian, and sometimes (in the tradition of Japanese kare) they’re just rice coated in spices.
So now that you’re good and confused, let’s just forget what we think we know about curry and take a delicious journey around the world. One curry at a time.
Mas Riha, Maldives
Mas Riha can be eaten any time of day, but when it’s eaten for breakfast, locals serve it with a slice of roshi (or flatbread instead of rice). The most important part of mas riha is the fresh tuna cooked over a low fire with fried onions and spices. Water gets added after the tuna is cooked, and the coconut milk isn’t added until the curry is almost done.
Sukhi Bhaji, Gujarat, India
This dry potato dish is not usually what Westerners think when they hear “curry”, but curry leaves, green chilies, and cilantro leaves give the potatoes a distinctive curry flavor. The curried potatoes are traditionally served with poori, an unleavened fry bread.