Favoring Curry

Spices in Kerala, India

Spices for sale in a market in Kerala, India’s “spice state.”

A homonym, also sometimes called a homograph, is a word that is spelled identically to another word but has both a completely different meaning and a different origin. Homonyms generally have separate listings in the dictionary. Good examples include compound, bark, and mail. Another is curry; to curry your horse is completely different from currying your lamb. The first curry comes from the Middle English word currayen, and means to prepare or to clean the coat of a horse. The second one most likely comes from the Tamil word kari, a little lingo British soldiers picked up in Ceylon. (There is some debate on this; a northern Indian gravy called khadi and a cooking dish called a karahi are also contenders, but most scholars, including Alan Davidson, have thrown in with the Tamil word kari as the origin, as has Webster’s Dictionary. Then there are those who think English got the word a few hundred years before the British went to India, pointing out that curry and the French word cuire, to cook, are not entirely dissimilar. I don’t mind bucking trends, but this time, I’m going with the most common scholarship and saying it’s from kari.)

So what is curry? The Tamil word kari means “sauce” or “gravy.” This is what the word curry means in India today: sauce or gravy. While it is possible to encounter flavors in Indian food that correspond to the taste often associated in the West with the word “curry,” Indian curry can also be a rich, buttery tomato sauce; a thick, oniony brown sauce; a savory yogurt sauce; a smooth, flavorful spinach gravy; or an elegant, cream-based sauce with raisins and almonds.

But that’s in India. There are myriad places outside India where the term curry is used to mean a specific flavor, or at least a limited range of flavors. India had a tremendous influence on Southeast Asia, particularly in the 4th through 6th centuries, but to some degree up until the 15th century. This influence, which was through trade, pilgrims, and a good bit of cultural imperialism, is why you find Buddhism, Hinduism, and curry pretty much throughout Southeast Asia. While variable both within and among countries, the curries of Southeast Asia all pretty much fall into a recognizable category that would be readily identified by Westerners as curry.

Enter the Europeans. India was where spices came from, and getting to India was the whole point of exploration in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Spices from India had flowed steadily into the Middle East and Europe for more than two thousand years, but with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, this flow was cut off, and everyone started trying to think of other ways of getting to India. Once they arrived, most Europeans became enamored of Indian food. When they went home, they didn’t want to leave behind them the tastes they had learned to love. So the Portuguese developed the fiery piri piri hot sauce, and the British developed curry powder. The first commercial curry powder appeared in 1780. The little tins of yellow powder labeled “curry” in the grocery store are actually a blend of from 6 to 12 spices that represent a colonial European attempt to replicate what they remembered of the vividness of Indian cuisine.

Now, Indian cooks do create their own blends of spices, but these blends don’t taste anything like curry powder, and they are not, in fact, called curries, they are called masalas. When you walk through an Indian grocery store, you will likely see many jars with the word “masala” on them, such as chai tea masala. It just means it’s spice for making whatever dish or beverage is named before the word “masala.” Garam masala is simply a mix of dry spices for general use, and while it can be purchased commercially, most Indian cooks create their own blends.

But back to curry. Europeans did not simply take the flavor of “curry” back home. They took it everywhere. As a result, you can now find curried goat in Jamaica, Japanese curry is tied for first place with sushi for mealtimes in Japan, and in Iceland, many fish dishes find themselves enhanced with a dash of curry powder. England in particular has adopted the taste of India. While there are myriad wonderful, authentic Indian restaurants in England, there is almost no British home, no matter how traditional, without a tin of curry powder and/or a bottle of HP curry sauce, and curry was actually voted the British National Dish not long ago. In 1846, poet William Makepeace Thackeray penned a poem that summed up the British attitude: “Poem to Curry,” which ends with the lines

Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish,
Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind fish,
Are fit to make a CURRY. ‘Tis, when done,
A dish for Emperors to feed upon.

So while I can accept the fact that some people don’t like curry (hard as it is for me to imagine), I do want you to take away from this the fact that, if you don’t like curry, it may rule out several Icelandic or Japanese dishes, and it certainly applies to a number of Thai or Cambodian specialties, and it will put you at odds with British passions, but it shouldn’t keep you from enjoying Indian food—at least not all of it.

[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]

© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History, Travel

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