Curry is one of the world’s most compelling culinary concepts, as both a noun and a verb. While the complex and flexible spice mixture originated in India, it has gradually become much bigger than a single subcontinent, carried by the diaspora of Indian immigrants and indentured servants, but also broadcast by British colonialism, and thus becoming a concept with rich and mixed meanings.
The word itself appears to have had its genesis outside of India, at least in part. In medieval England, the word “cury” merely meant to cook. In fact, when a collection of regal recipes was written for the 14th-century court of King Richard II, it was called The Forme of Cury. How the term picked up an extra R and came to have its present meaning is a tale worth telling.
As the story goes (I’m synopsizing several accounts here and adding my own inferences), 18th-century British colonial military officers set to return home asked their Indian associates, “What is that marvelous spice you put in all your dishes?” The truth was that it wasn’t one spice, but innumerable complex spice combinations known as masalas. But spice merchants were glad to comply, and threw together a powdered mix of a dozen or so spices, often containing cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom, with turmeric imparting an earthiness and a distinctly yellowish color.
How this mix came to be called curry remains a question for the etymologists, though one theory is that the Tamil word kari, designating a leaf prominent in Indian cooking, may have been misheard, or otherwise transformed into curry. However it happened, the curry powder brought back to England had an explosive impact on a nation that had long been remote from spice routes, where onion remained the most common flavoring and black peppercorns were historically considered a precious substance. For some modern commentators, curry powder has come to symbolize colonialism.
The first English-language recipe calling for curry powder appeared in 1747, and the spice mixture was quickly incorporated into English cookery. But curry powder didn’t stop there. It soon spread to other European countries, and from there it was carried all over the world. It was considered a British product, but in many ways remained fundamentally Indian. While most dishes called curries utilized curry powder, the word itself came to designate spicy stews featuring combinations of flavorings, such as in Thailand, where most curries, more properly called kaeng, are free of curry powder.
Taking curry by its broadest definition, here are some of my favorite examples from all over the New York City region, many of them with spice blends far afield from the one described above.Read More