Is Curry from India?
By John Day Barnett
Imagine my surprise when I asked my wife, Ushi, to make me curry one night. I thought it was simply a harmless request for dinner – what I didn’t realize is that it would lead me down the road of discovery about a leaf, the Westernization of Indian food, and a cookbook from 1747 (and an apology for offending her “Indian-ness”).
Curry Powder: Who’s Dish Is It Anyway?
Andrew Lawler in a Slate article from 2013 wrote the headline The Mystery of Curry.1 According to his research, curry predates European’s presence in India by 4,000 years. While curry itself can be hotly debated depending on who you talk to about what is included in a curry, the term itself comes from the Tamil language (kari means sauce).
Three of the key ingredients in a curry – ginger, garlic, and turmeric – make up a base for many varieties and styles.
The Indus civilization (the basis for the name India) covered land ranging from Pakistan to Western India, focusing on the Indus river. According to Lawler, “the biggest breakthrough came in the 1960s, when excavators began to drop soil from their sites – particularly from places where food was likely prepared – onto mesh screens.” Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber of Washington State University, Vancouver analyzed the remaining seeds and animal bones to piece together the earliest diets of these people. Their findings showed turmeric and ginger, as well as evidence for things enjoyed today like tandoori chicken.
This does not mean that curry can’t be a British food, or even American. The UK celebrates a National Curry Week, and has adopted curry as a “national dish” according to the BBC. 2 There is an English cookbook from the 1390’s called The Forme of Cury, however in this case Cury pertains to the French word cuire, to cook.
The first recipe for curry in English, according to the BBC, was published by Hannah Glasse in 1747 in her book The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy; Which far exceeds anything of the Kind yet-published3. The section on curry (on page 101 for those interested), includes such familiar ingredients as onions, ginger, pepper, and “turmerick.” The title of the section is the best in my opinion, simple and straightforward – “To make a currey the Indian way.”
Curry powder appears to be a British invention, as many British in India wanted to bring home the tastes they encountered while visiting India. There is no standard version or recipe, it only depends on the manufacturer or taste preference of the person doing the cooking. Typically, a curry dish is North Indian style and spicy. Based on what I’ve read, the closest Indian equivalent is korma, a dish from Mughlai cuisine.
Here’s an experiment you may want to try, as it would be both informative and delicious. Go to your favorite Indian restaurant and order a version of curry. Try the chicken curry, for example. Then, tomorrow night, head to another Indian restaurant and try that chicken curry. What do you taste that is different, and what is the same? Do you notice any changes in spices, heat, or consistency? Which one is your favorite, why, and do you think someone in the Indus civilization would have agreed that what you are eating is “curry?”
1. Lawler, Andrew, The Mystery of Curry, Slate, January 29, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/01/indus_civilization_food_how_scientists_are_figuring_out_what_curry_was_like.html
2. Taylor, Anna-Louise, Curry: Where did it come from?, BBC, October 11, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/0/24432750
3. Glasse, Hannah, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy; Which far exceeds anything of the Kind yet, London, Google books. Web. 7 Dec. 2016. http://books.google.com