Many Americans think that “curry” is a single spice, like basil or oregano or mint. But in fact, “curry” is a catchall term for any spicy sauce. Curry is how the Tamil word “kari” filtered out from its Indian origins. Curry is a blend of spices, but even as such, there is no specific recipe for curry. A more encompassing word for curried dishes is “masala,” which includes powdered garam masala from northern India, but also “chat masala,” which is both tart and salty, ”kala masala,” a black curry, and “dhansak masala, which is a hot Parsi curry. There are many different curry blends, both powered and whole spices and wet and dry curry mixes. Curry can be mild, hot, or anywhere in between, depending on individual preference and regional preparations. Although there are certainly exceptions, in general, northern Indian dishes tend to use dry powders but in the south, pastes are the preference. Again, in general, Indians tend to prefer to create curry mixtures from raw ingredients. Because of this, travelers used to Western-prepared Indian dishes are often surprised by the more intense flavors.
Even though the term “masala,” is more often used in India, it is the word “curry” that is most associated with Indian dishes in the West, and indeed, in most areas of the world. The dried spices used to create curry blends for export often include, in various amounts, some or all of the following: ground mustard seed, coriander, cumin, turmeric, and sometimes fenugreek. Other additions, less common but not rare include cardamom, cinnamon, and ground chili peppers. The reason that most commercially available curries are yellow are due to turmeric, which is a bright yellow when ground up.
Curry’s history is as colorful as the spice itself. It has long been connected to magic and ceremonial ritual in India. Because of these negative associations, curry was forbidden by most ancient Indian religions, as those who indulged were thought to be unable to live virtuous lives. Curry became synonymous with luxurious, sinful indulgence.
India’s spice blend was discovered by travelers as early as 1502, written about first by the Portuguese, but Greek and Roman traders apparently were familiar with curry centuries prior, according to accounts by the Tamils. These accounts say that the traveles were quite fond of Indian dishes along the trading ports, at least. It seems that this type of spice blend was not completely foreign to those Greek and Roman traders, because the types of spices within the curry blend had been individually introduced to the Mediterranean many years earlier.
The first known curry recipe in England appears in a 1747 collection by a woman named Hannah Glasse. Her recipe was for a stew rather than simply a sauce. The Dutch too transformed curry, creating a dish they name “rijstafel.” Masala, too, transformed from its original Indian recipes when it migrated to England. Still, even with all the new ways of preparation, curry retained its unique appeal.
It took a great deal longer for Americans to embrace curry. In 1856, a curried dish appeared in Eliza Leslie’s cookbook called New Cook Book. Leslie was not pleased with the adulterations of curry in the New World. She remarked, "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 raw in the shell. These tamarinds impart a pleasant acid to the mixture. For want of them, use lemon." Leslie is advocating traditional preparations for curry. Despite her protestations, the Westernized curries prevailed, and in large part, continue to prevail.
Source: Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved
Curry is a spice long used in Indian cooking and in earlier times, in Indian medecine. The spice flavors many foods but according to the Indian friends we have, curry is to be used for vegetables , not meat. India is changing, as is so much of the world, and I see curry on menus using it with vegetables and with meat. Curry used to follow the custom of foods being hot or cold and used to balance the body regardless of the heat or spiciness of the food. The Portugese influenced Indian food especially biriyani, one of my favorites, and brought the dishes to the outside world. As India has become a hot spot for training computer software experts, and as they move into other parts of the world with their expertise, Indian food and the use of curry spreads. What was once an exotic spice has become commonplace.