Most folks know that today, curry is Britain’s favorite dish—probably chicken tikka masala, if you need a specific dish. But Britain has a long history with Indian food and spices—more than 400 years, in fact. The first Queen Elizabeth sent a ship to India in 1583, and within a few decades, the British East India Company was setting up offices in Bombay. Food ideas from the subcontinent were flowing into the British Isles with returning traders and soldiers and government officials. Of course, substitutions had to be made, as tropical ingredients such as coconut milk and mangoes would not be available in England. But spices were coming in, and the Brits did the best they could—as evidenced by the inclusion of a curry in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook.
I have previously shared videos of often-surprising dishes that date to the 1700s, and so here again, I turn to Townsends, to let them share with you a curry recipe from Hannah Glasse. Enjoy.
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. Continue reading →
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