TMKW: The origin of curry

Panang Curry.
Panang Curry.

What is curry?

According to the dictionary it’s either:

A: To groom a horse with a rubber or plastic comb


B: A dish of meat and/or vegetables, cooked in an Indian style sauce of strong flavor, typically using turmeric and other spices. It is often served with rice.

I know nothing of horsemanship, so I’ll leave definition A to those who do. However, I do know a bit about curry, and it’s not definition B. Let’s redefine.


History lesson.

Curries originated in India, where each curry dish is called by a different name and none of them is curry.

Indians use a variety of meats and vegetables in their “curries.” The spice mixes and pastes used to create these dishes vary greatly. Each spice farmer and merchant creates his or her own spice mix using anywhere from 5-20 different spices in the mix. Commonly used spices are ground turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, chili, white and black pepper, salt, allspice, ground mustard, ground ginger, cinnamon, roasted cumin, cloves, nutmeg, mace, green cardamom seeds or black cardamom pods, and bay leaves.

The word curry came from the Indian word kari, which means sauce. The British East India Company introduced Indian spices to the British, and curry powder (kari podi) was born from their attempt to replicate the flavor of Indian curries during the mid to late 1800s. Curry became known among Europeans as a meat dish with a cream sauce flavored by curry powder. The powder was usually comprised of turmeric, coriander, cumin, salt, and pepper, and sometimes a small amount of chilies.

India isn’t the only country to have a traditional dish labeled as curry. Many different countries from Thailand to Pakistan to Jamaica enjoy meat and vegetable dishes cooked with similar flavors.

In the seventh century, Indian monks traveling through Asia taught many different Asian peoples how to make curry. Over time, they developed their own local flavors.

The Thai call their curries kaeng, and start their sauce with a base made from shrimp paste, chilies, onions and garlic. From this base, they create red curry (red chilies), yellow curry (turmeric), green curry (green chilies), and a variety of other localized curries. Local ingredients such as kaffir leaves, lemongrass, galangal and coconut milk distinguish Thai curry from Indian curry.

In Vietnam they serve a variety of dishes similar to Indian curry called cŕ ri. Vietnamese curry is differentiated by local flavors including taro root, cilantro, coconut milk and scallions

As transportation and communication grew throughout the past few centuries, Indian curry traveled around the globe and variations are found in hundreds of countries.

So you see, the word curry is as ubiquitous as the word casserole. The curry flavors we believe to be uniquely Indian are in fact uniquely British. Try this kari recipe and introduce your family to the “real” taste of curry.

Keema Matar (Beef and Pea Curry)

Origin: India

There are a lot of spices listed in the recipe, but don’t let it scare you. Buying the spices whole and grinding will provide an amazing flavor that pre-ground curry powder cannot compete with. Feel free to remove the red chilies and reduce the amount of pepper corns if your family does not appreciate heat.

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp coriander seeds

1/2 inch fresh ginger root

1/8 tsp mace

1/8 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp turmeric

2 dried red chilies

2 cloves garlic

6 pepper corns

1/4 cup ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil, or vegetable oil

1 cinnamon stick

2 cloves

1 bay leaf

3 cardamom seeds

1 onion, sliced

1 lb hamburger

1 medium tomato, chopped

1/2 cup water

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas

Grind the first nine ingredients into a paste.

Sauté the cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, and cardamom in the ghee for 15-30 seconds on med-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until golden.

Reduce heat to low, and add the spice paste. Cover and cook 10 minutes.

Uncover, and add the hamburger. Sauté until the hamburger is no longer pink.

Add the tomato, water, and salt. Sauté 5 minutes then cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if needed.

Stir in peas and cook until tender, 2-5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick, cloves, bay leaf, and cardamom seeds. Serve over steamed rice.