What is curry?
A curry is a fragrant, often heavily spiced (but not necessarily spicy) dish that consists of some combination of vegetables and/or meat in a gravy, which is then served over rice or other absorbent starch. This holds true for curries of all areas around the world. Before we can really talk about curry, it's probably best to have a vocabulary primer. Curry has become a bit of a catch-all term, and can be frustratingly broad and inexact at times.
Curry originated on the Indian subcontinent, and to keep this blog a readable length, we'll consider this to be all of the pre-Indian independence area, so we're also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The dishes we know as curry have been around for hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of years. A 3rd-century Greek treatise on gastronomy, Deiponosophistai, chronicles a banquet that featured a dish of boiled rice, topped with meat, "dressed in the Indian fashion." The term "curry" didn't exist until western colonizers staked their claims in India. When Portuguese explorer Vasco DaGama and his crew rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed northeast to the shores of the Indian subcontinent in 1498, they brought New World foods like tomatoes and chile peppers with them, which were then incorporated into the local cuisine. Indian cooks had black pepper and a cousin of black pepper, the long pepper, to add a spicy kick to their food. Long pepper, however, without adequate storage, was subject to mold. When the Portuguese brought chile peppers that could be dried and were less susceptible to mold, they adopted them into their cooking, transforming their own dishes into the spicy, vibrant gravies that help define curry. The origin of the word "curry" is a little unclear, but it's fairly certain that the Portuguese took a Tamil word—it was either "caril" or "kari"—and applied it in one sweeping gesture to these stew-like spiced dishes. Hence, curry as a food category was born.
Traditional Indian curries—the kind of dish prepared in India—are not called curries. Instead, they are called by the proper name of the dish. Butter Chicken, brisk and warming from ginger and cumin mingling in a tomato and butter gravy, is an enticing example of a modern Indian curry, while Vegetable Jalfrezi (which translates roughly as "stir fry"), spiked with chiles and with water as the liquid, is more traditional. We can even thank the Portuguese sailors for creating a curry that is still a favorite today. Vindaloo is a daringly spicy curry that showcases the fusion of Indian and western ingredients. It's made with tamarind and tomato paste, cardamom and vinegar, cumin and as many chile peppers as you're willing to stuff into one dish. The word, vindaloo, is a mangled way of saying vinha d'alhos, or meat marinated in vinegar and garlic, which is how Portuguese sailors would preserve and store meat in preparation for oceanic voyages.
What is curry powder?
Curry powders are spice blends created in England and developed to appeal to the British palate. Along with turmeric, Indian curry blends often incorporate spices like cumin, black pepper, bay leaf, coriander, and cardamom, creating the warm and earthy character that's so important to these dishes. The Brits watched Portugal's wealth grow with their occupation of India; in 1599 the British East India Trading Company was formed and within a year, they'd landed on India's shores. The UK exerted its strength throughout India, so much so that by 1858 they were completely in control and established the Raj. The age of British Imperialism in India lasted until Indian independence in 1947.
Brits returned to England but didn't want to give up the flavors they had gotten used to during their imperial tenure. They created curry powders to emulate the spice blends they had come to love abroad. Madras Curry Powder, for example, has the warmth of cumin and coriander and the fiery heat of chili pepper flakes. Some of them, like Maharajah Curry Powder, are regal with the addition of special ingredients like saffron. And our Tikka Masala Curry Powder, honoring that indisputably British dish, showcases traditional Indian spices along with caraway seed and bay leaves. What curry powders are not, are traditionally Indian.
What curry powder also is not, is the product that comes from grinding curry leaves. A member of the citrus family, this aromatic herb is usually used whole in a recipe, like a bay leaf, though it can be eaten. Curry leaves are not an ingredient in curry powder.
Garam masala is a traditional seasoning blend from the northern regions of India and features warm spices like cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. Since it is Indian, it is not a curry powder, though you can certainly make curries featuring garam masala. Garam means "warm" and masala means "mix". The name refers to the snug warmth you feel when you eat a bowl of curry made fragrant and comforting with the mix of seasonings in garam masala on a cold winter's night—it does get cold in the mountains of northern India—and not any sort of chile pepper heat. Garam masalas can be highly personalized, and vary from region to region, and even person to person, depending on taste preferences.
How do I use curry powder?
Indian-style curry powders are best with a substantial amount of cooking time; their flavor should be allowed to bloom and mellow, either for a long time at a simmer or added to the flavor base of onions and garlic after being sweated in some oil. Putting Indian curry powders in at the end of the cooking will provide you with a dish that's bitter and grainy; most of them have a heavy turmeric presence, and the chalky, astringent nature of turmeric needs some time to mellow.
When cooking with a powdered Thai seasoning, the spice blend is added closer to the end of the cooking time so delicate seasonings like lemongrass or basil don't dissipate into the steam after prolonged cooking. Cooking with Thai paste, though, is much like cooking with Indian spices. Heat aromatics like onion and garlic in oil first, and then add the paste and let that cook for a few moments before dispersing through the cooking liquid. Concentrated pastes need the opportunity to assimilate into the cooking medium for best flavor.
Curry Powder in Thai and Asian Cooking
Thai curry powders are often lighter and brighter in their composition than their Indian cousins, featuring spices like ginger and galangal, lemongrass, basil, makrut lime, and coriander. Thai cuisine is one of the few cuisines not profoundly impacted by British imperialism because it was never occupied by them. They have a long culinary history of highly-seasoned gravy-like stews served over rice, called kaeng, which basically means curry. That word, however, did not get adopted into the Thai lexicon until the mid-1800s, when the Thai royal house opened up their markets for broader international trade. That oversaw an influx of British influences and ushered in an Asian culture shift, part of which saw "kaeng" become "curry". Thai yellow curry would not exist without the British and their love for bright yellow turmeric. When it was initially assimilated into Thai cooking, yellow curry was called "kaeng kari"—literally, "curry curry". Green Thai Curry Powder is green thanks to the color of its chiles; the same goes for pungent, spicy red Thai curry.
Curry came to Japan in a similar fashion; while that country has always been a sovereign nation unto itself, Japan opened for trade to the west in 1853. Fragrant curry powder found its way in. By 1877 curry was in Japanese restaurants and at the start of the 20th century, became a staple food of the Japanese military, which they then took to South Korea during the age of Japanese rule. Japanese curry, made with a standard-issue Sweet Curry Powder, is not hot but rather, sweet, with the addition of apples and ketchup. It is enormously popular from one end of Japan to the other. Conventional wisdom says the people of Japan like that curry is sloppy and un-fussy, as opposed to the elegant but confined nature of most Japanese cuisine.
Curry in Africa, South Africa and The Caribbean
For roughly two thousand years, northern Africans have been building a tradition of curry. Thanks to trade with the Phoenicians, northern African kitchens were graced with spices like cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper very early on. Skilled ancients in turn added these to tagines, the meat-vegetable-gravy dishes named after the clay pot in which they are cooked. Traditional spice blends used in African tagines includes the gorgeous Ras El Hanout from Morocco, a complex blend of dried herbs and spices that means "top of the shop" and was the end result of the best a Moroccan spice vendor had to offer. Curries throughout Africa tend to have a tremendous amount of condiments and dressings that can be added so one can personalize their own meal as they see fit.
Curry made its way through the rest of Africa thanks, once more, to European imperialism. South African curries arose from colonization by both the Dutch and the British. The Dutch East India Company settled the Cape Town region in the 17th century to provide a supply station for sailors traveling around the Cape of Good Hope. To make sure the heavy lifting got done, they brought slaves with them from the islands of Indonesia and along the east coast of Africa; the slaves were primarily opponents to Dutch colonization. The slaves brought with them their cooking knowledge and spices from their homelands, and the Indonesian people had been making their own form of curry, called "gulai" for hundreds of years. They began adapting the local foods to their taste. Since Malay was a common language spoken by most of the unfortunates, they came to be known as the Cape Malay people. The Cape Malay Curry that developed there is not overly spicy, and it's got a surprising lift from the combination of sweet and savory elements—cumin and ginger, beef and apricots.
A thousand miles away and more than a hundred years later, in the Natal area of South Africa, British colonizers established a presence around Durban. At the height of its power the British Empire controlled approximately 30% of Africa's peoples. When the British started their colonization efforts in the 19th century, they came clutching their favorite bottles of curry powder. Since Britain had outlawed slavery in 1807, the Natal colony was worked by indentured servants brought over from India and so, the familiar Indian spice blends were applied to South African ingredients. Today, Durban has the largest Indian population outside of India and Durban curry, having adapted to the natural and cultural environment, is often served not over rice, but potatoes. Durban also has a version of curry called bunny chow, which is served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
In much the same way—the need for indentured servants to work plantations—curry made its way to the Caribbean. The British took control of Trinidad and Tobago in 1802 and its established plantation economy, but the 1807 outlawing of slavery rendered them with the need for workers. Once more, the British sent indentured Indian servants to do the hard labor, and curry came with their arrival to the Caribbean. While the powders of the Caribbean, like Trinidad Curry Powder, are not spiked with dried chiles and are milder than other curries out of the bottle, there is no shortage of fresh Scotch bonnet peppers available to light the curry fire.
Curry has become difficult to define because it's got a presence in practically every corner of the world. Warm, comforting, soothing, fun, fiery, rich, indulgent…curries have it all. There are a few examples of curries, mainly from Thailand and Indonesia, that existed as a food entity before the British empire and Indian diaspora carried it around the world. This leads to their inexact nature; they are everywhere and belong to everyone. Most of them retain a sense of Indian-ness, but also embrace their local environments, becoming something unique in every corner of the world.