Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of potassium permanganate, stirring chemical solutions, analyzing compounds, and spilling picric acid on my lab coat, staining it yellow, a shade very similar to turmeric, I happened to knock a mercury thermometer onto the bare terrazzo floor. As microscopic pieces of glass and droplets of the mercury dispersed, I tried to pick up the pieces. The glass was easy but not the mercury. The elusive (not to mention dangerous) shining, silvery liquid defied containment and form (we had no mercury spill kits back then). It moved freely with even with the slightest nudge and affected everything it touched. Which brings me back to the task at hand: Defining curry is like trying to grasp liquid mercury and gather it into a neat pile.
It should come as no surprise (but maybe it does) that the word curry itself is unknown in the Indian vocabulary, not included in any of the country’s 23 officially recognized languages or its more than 1,600 “mother tongues” — dialects from the subcontinent’s 23 states and nine union territories. Words such “kari” and “kadhi” refer to dishes that existed in India well before the Aryans got there, and considering that the nation’s civilization spans 6,000 years, you can well imagine the words’– and the dishes’ — longevity. James Trager, in his 1970 book with a moutful of a title: “The Enriched, Fortified, Concentrated, Country-Fresh, Lip-Smacking, Finger-Licking, International, Unexpurgated Foodbook” mentions the seasoning habits of the fifth-century B.C. civilization known as the Mohenjo-Daro. They used mortars and pestles to pound the sun-dried “seeds of mustard, fennel and most especially cumin and the rinds of tamarind pods” to create the “earliest curry powder.” (Keep in mind his use of the term curry powder stems from a need to apply a modern terminology to an ancient spice blend.)
From kadhi to curry?
Kari, a word from the southern Indian language of Tamil, was widely in use by 1500 B.C., if not earlier, according to renowned Indian food historian K.T. Achaya, who researched numerous ancient Sanskrit literary works. Kari described animal meat in particular, stewed with “wet dressings” and spiced with black (or karuppu, in Tamil) pepper. I see the transformation of “kari” to “curry” as a result of mispronounced happenstance.
Another school of thought suggests that kadhi, a yogurt-based dish from India’s northwestern region, is the precursor to what came to be known as “curry.” The British were exposed to this saucy dish much earlier than to the foods of the south (they had entered India in the early 1600s through the northwestern city of Surat), making kadhi quite possibly the original “curry.”
A Dutch traveler’s account from an early 16th century visit to India alludes to a sour-tasting brothy fish served with rice. It was called carriel. In spite of all these debates about the origin of the word “curry,” there is an agreement that its saucy, spice-laden concept has been India’s legacy for thousands of years, dating to its indigenous civilization.
Reay Tannahill, in his hefty 1973 volume “Food in History,” alludes to a recipe for curry from the Code of Manu, an ancient Indian legal text, which was to accompany rice: “27 ounces each of meat and spices, which are to be mixed with insignificant quantities of fat, salt and sugar, and a mere 10½ ounces of curds.” The first English-printed recipe for a “currey” the “Indian way” is traced back to Hannah Glasse’s 1747 masterpiece, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” (published exactly 200 years before India got its independence from the British, I might add). She stews rabbits or fowl with a little rice (as thickener) and a lot of spices, primarily coriander and pepper. Glasse’s version is quite different from a feast described in the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” penned around 100 B.C., that describes a sophisticated complex-tasting fish in a sauce redolent with cardamom, cumin, cloves, black pepper and salt, served over rice.
Currying favor in the palace
Some believe that King Richard II’s palace cooks invented curry in Britain around 1390, more than two centuries before the British East India Company was established in India. His cooks built layers of flavors and textures with sophisticated spicing techniques that involved cloves, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, cumin and cardamom, among others. Some of these recipes are well documented in the1390 book “The Forme of Cury.” Since kari, or even kadhi were nowhere on the radar screen, how did the English know to bastardize those terms to their version of “curry”?
A convincing argument indeed, for which I grant the English ownership of the anglicized word “curry,” if not the concept of the dish. After all, they were the ones who came up with curry powder, trying to capture the flavors of a true curry with a generic blend of ground spices. However, one would be hard-pressed to ignore the establishment of a vibrant spice trade, whose pulse was the Indian subcontinent, but that was controlled by the Arabs and then the Romans thousands of years back.
Spices are the backbone of these saucy dishes, and with India’s 6,000-year tradition using them, I consider this subcontinent to be their master. They toasted, roasted, pounded and mixed their spices to layer the sauces that bathed, swathed, steeped, stewed and simmered meats, vegetables and legumes well before the Europeans. So, the English got the word, but the Indian subcontinent still gets credit for the concept. In a similar vein, the Arabs remained the source of spices even after the Romans usurped their route.
In England and the rest of the world, curry is the catchall word for anything Indian that is mottled with hot notes, with or without a sauce, while curry powder is the blend that delivers it. In keeping with my culture’s saucy heritage, I define a curry as any dish that consists of either meats, fish, poultry, legumes, vegetables or fruits, simmered or covered with a sauce, gravy (or tari in Hindi), or any liquid that is redolent with spices and or herbs. In my India, curry is never added – it just is!
Spiced Yogurt with Okra
Recipe from 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer (Workman, 2008)
One school of thought has it that the word “curry” is an anglicized pronunciation of the yogurt- or buttermilk-based dish called Kadhis, yogurt or buttermilk-based dishes, have been in existence all around the Indian subcontinent for eons, and they have a reputation as a cure for digestive ailments: a scoop of delicately spiced kadhi over a mound of hot white rice will do the trick. This version, from the northwestern state of Gujarat, uses thick slices of okra fried in clarified butter and simmered until tender in spiced, herbed buttermilk, thickened with chickpea flour. One eloquent word describes this combination: Yum!
- Trim the caps off the okra without cutting into the pods, and then cut the pods into 1-inch lengths.
- Whisk the buttermilk, chickpea flour, sugar, salt, cayenne, and turmeric together in a medium-size bowl, making sure the flour is completely incorporated, with no lumps. Then stir in the cilantro and curry leaves.
- Heat the ghee in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the cumin and fenugreek seeds into the pan and cook until they sizzle, turn reddish brown, and are fragrant, about 10 seconds.
- Immediately add the okra and stir-fry until the slices blister in spots and acquire a light brown coloration on their ridged skin, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Pour in the spiced buttermilk mixture and stir once or twice to deglaze the pan, releasing any browned bits of spices and okra. Lower the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the okra is fork-tender and the curry has thickened slightly, 10 to 12 minutes. The transformation from a pale, cream-colored curry to a robust, sun-yellow one is beautiful to watch. Serve.
Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning “660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Iyer sells spices at turmerictrail.com.
Photo: Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink