From the UK, to Japan, to the Caribbean, to the Pacific Islands, “curry” is one of the most popular and loved dishes around the world. For many people, it is synonymous with Indian food… but did you know that in India the term curry isn’t used in the same way. Today, let’s discuss what “curry” is, how it was invented, and how it has spread around the world!
- Spice (n) – a substance made from a plant, used to give a special flavour to food.
- Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves are all spices.
- Aromatic (adj) – strong, pleasant smelling, usually from food or drink.
- These coffee beans are incredibly aromatic.
- Melting pot (n) – a place where many different people and ideas exist together, often mixing and producing something new.
- New Orleans is one of the great melting pots of America.
- Culinary (adj) – connected with cooking or kitchens.
- I went on a culinary tour of Beijing.
- Homogeneous (adj) – consisting of parts or people that are similar to each other or are of the same type.
- The population of the village has remained remarkably homogeneous.
- Adequately (adv) – in a way that is enough or satisfactory for a particular purpose.
- While some patients can be adequately cared for at home, others are best served by care in a hospital.
- Flavour profile (phrase) – the specific combination and characteristics of flavours present in a particular dish or food.
- The wine’s flavour profile has notes of blackberries, dark chocolate, and hints of oak.
- Subcontinent (n) – a large area of land that is part of a continent, often referring to South Asia.
- He has written a book about the history of railways in the Indian subcontinent.
My Love of Curry
Growing up in the UK, “Indian food” (or at least what we think of as Indian food) was a massive part of my culture.
If I went to a restaurant with my family, there was a very high chance it would be an Indian restaurant. If we were to get takeout food, it was probably Indian food. UK supermarkets are filled with aisles of curry sauces, curry making kits, and other accompaniments for a British-style Indian meal!
In fact, in my hometown (a small town of about 6000 people) there were 4 Indian restaurants – and more Indian restaurants in the neighbouring towns and villages!
Going for a “curry” is such a common part of UK culture. Heading to the Indian restaurant on a Friday night, drinking a few beers with a spicy curry, rice, naan, and other delicious side dishes. Growing up, I loved chicken tikka masalas, lamb baltis, and pepper filled jalfrezis – served with poppadoms and onion bhajis.
Now… if you are from India (and not from the UK) you may be a little confused. To a British person, these are some of the most iconic and popular Indian dishes… but they were all invented in the UK. Of course, they were inspired by the dishes and flavours of South Asia, but they were created for the British public by immigrants to the UK.
Moreover, the entire concept of “curry” probably doesn’t make much sense in India. It wasn’t until I visited India in 2015 as part of a UK government funded educational trip that I realised the concept of “curry” didn’t really exist in India!
What is Curry?
Let’s start with a basic question: what is curry?
Curry is a flavourful and aromatic dish that originated in the Indian subcontinent but has gained popularity worldwide. It is a term used to describe a variety of dishes that are prepared with a combination of spices, herbs, and often include meat, vegetables, or legumes.
The key ingredient in curry is a blend of spices known as curry powder or curry paste. This mixture typically consists of spices such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and chili, among others. These spices are combined in different proportions to create a unique flavour profile.
Curry can be prepared using different cooking methods, including simmering, sautéing, or stewing. The spices are usually cooked with oil or ghee (clarified butter) to release their flavours. It is then combined with various ingredients such as meat (commonly chicken, lamb, or fish), vegetables (such as potatoes, cauliflower, or spinach), or legumes (like lentils or chickpeas). The ingredients are cooked together until they are tender and infused with the flavours of the spices.
The resulting curry dish is often served with rice or bread, such as naan or roti, to soak up the sauce. It can have a rich and thick consistency or a lighter, more liquid texture, depending on the specific recipe and regional variations. Curries can vary greatly in taste, colour, and spiciness, reflecting the diverse culinary traditions across different parts of India and other countries where curry is enjoyed. Curry has become a popular and versatile dish worldwide, with various adaptations and interpretations found in different cuisines.
Do you want to Think in English?
I’m so excited that you found my blog and podcast!! If you don’t want to miss an article or an episode, you can subscribe to my page!
The “Invention” of Curry!
As I mentioned earlier, the word “curry” is not commonly used in India in the same way it is outside of India.
India is full of thousands of unique, varied, and delicious dishes, with an incredible variety of cuisines throughout the subcontinent. From the hot southern states to the Himalayas, India is an incredibly large country.
And in the country, there is so much variety. India has deserts, jungles, and mountains, mega-cities and isolated villages. There are many religions, including Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Jains. And influences from other great empires from history – including Arab traders, Mughal invaders, and Persian travellers.
Out of this diverse melting pot of a society, India has developed one of the most extensive and diverse cuisines on the planet. Each region has its distinct culinary traditions, and the term “curry” does not adequately capture this vast array of flavours and preparations.
Due to its wealth of resources, India attracted to attention of European colonists. The French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish all began to trade and settle in areas of the country. And most famously, Britain ultimately ended up fully colonising India in the 19th century.
When the European colonial powers arrived in India, they did not understand this cuisine. They could not comprehend the variety, flavours, and styles of cooking across the country. Instead, they grouped the various dishes, cuisines, techniques, and traditions of South Asia into one category: curry.
The word “curry” probably dates back to the 16th century, with the Portuguese colonialists in the Indian region Goa the first to use the term. It is not exactly certain where the Portuguese took the word from, but it could have been borrowed from Malayalam, Kannada, or Tamil languages. For example, the word kari in Tamil can be translated to “spiced sauce”.
The Portuguese were using the word “caril” to refer to the local cuisine, and in the plural tense this became carie or curree. This eventually developed into the English word “curry”.
The Europeans in India combined different dishes into a single category of food: curry. And then they added their own categories – mild, medium, and hot spice levels. This concept of categorising food into spice levels is incredibly common in western countries (and also places like Japan) – but it was in the Bengal Golf Club in Kolkata that “curries” were first sold based on the level of spice.
In India, specific dishes are referred to by their regional or local names. Rather than curry, you will hear terms like “biryani”, “thali”, “dosas”, and “chaats”.
The term “curry” as used outside of India often implies a homogeneous, sauce-based dish with a specific flavour profile. However, Indian cuisine offers a much wider range of flavours, textures, and cooking styles, including dry dishes, stir-fries, and dishes with thick gravies. This diversity is not adequately captured by the term “curry.”
People are often surprised when they hear that Chicken Tikka Masala, a popular curry, was first made in the UK and was voted as the national dish of UK for many years. It is a demonstration of how important “curry” is to UK cuisine and culture.
The flavours and spices of Indian cuisine were brought back to the UK by the colonialists and generations of immigrants from South Asia. To do this, they developed curry powders – blends of spices such as coriander, black pepper, ginger, cumin, and turmeric which were pre-packaged and then shipped across the world.
While inside India there were thousands of unique spice mixtures and blends, the British identified a specific flavour profile with “curry”. And therefore, this specific flavour profile became associated with the idea of Indian food. In India, however, the British curry powder was never popular.
The first Indian restaurant in the UK was the Hindustan Coffee House in London, which opened in the year 1810. And although it closed after only a few months, more restaurants soon opened. These restaurants were popular with the growing number of Indian students and British people who had spent time out in India.
Then, after WWII, entrepreneurial Bangladeshi immigrants began to take over some of the restaurants (especially fish and chip shops) that had closed down during the war. In order to make a successful business, they had to create dishes that would appeal to local people – especially working-class men.
They continued to serve some of the fish and chip shop classic dishes but would also add curry. Rather than making traditional South Asian dishes, these Bangladeshi shop owners used more local ingredients and took shortcuts so that dishes could be made quickly and easily.
Still today, almost every fish and chip shop in the UK will have curry sauce on the menu. And the vast majority of Indian restaurants in the UK are operated by men from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh.
Chicken Tikka Masala
Indian food in the UK has been adapted for British tastes. While the inspiration is from the cuisine of South Asia, immigrants to the UK would change their recipes and food styles to increase their number of customers.
For example, Indian restaurants in the UK will serve food in courses – starters, mains, and side dishes – which suits Europeans but is not common in India.
And most famously, quite a few of the most popular British curry dishes were actually invented in the UK.
One of these “British curries” is Chicken tikka masala. While the precise details may be uncertain, one popular narrative suggests that chicken tikka masala was born out of a fusion of Indian and British culinary influences.
One story attributes the creation of chicken tikka masala to an Indian chef in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1960s. As the story goes, a customer in an Indian restaurant complained that the chicken tikka (marinated and grilled chicken) was dry. To address the issue, the chef improvised by adding a spiced tomato-based sauce (inspired by traditional Indian curries) to the chicken tikka, creating a new dish that combined the flavors of Indian spices with a creamy tomato sauce. The customer enjoyed the modified dish, and it gained popularity among other customers.
However, as food in the UK has become more international and the internet and technology has opened up the world to more people, Britain’s tastes are beginning to change. There is now a much bigger demand for “authentic” Indian food, rather than the classic British curries!
Curries Around the World
The UK was not the only destination for Indian immigrants. Thousands of Indian workers moved to other places in the British empire like Fiji, the Caribbean, Malaysia, Mauritius, and parts of Africa – and with them they brought their food heritage.
And it wasn’t just the British colonial powers who spread curry – Portugal controlled the Goa region of India and used people from there for labour in their colonies in Africa.
While spiced stews have existed for thousands of years across the world, in many places “curry” is defined by a specific spice profile. I’ve eaten “Indian” food in the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – and while the experiences were all different, it was clear that they were all inspired by the idea of curry. Similarly, I’ve eaten Japanese, Caribbean, and African curries which don’t pretend to be Indian but are all made with a curry powder or curry powder inspired blend of spices.
In Japan, kare raisu or “curry rice” is often considered to the national dish of the country. Introduced to Japan by the British during the Meiji era (late 19th century), Japanese curry differs from Indian curry in terms of flavours and ingredients. It typically features a thick, mildly spicy curry sauce made with ingredients such as onions, carrots, potatoes, and meat (commonly beef, pork, or chicken).
Japanese curry tends to have a sweeter and milder taste compared to Indian dishes. It is often served with rice and garnished with pickled vegetables or other toppings like tonkatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet).
In Fiji, Indian immigrants brought with them their techniques, and now curry is one of the most popular dishes on the islands. Fijian curries are influenced by Indian flavours and techniques but have also developed their distinct character over time. Common ingredients include spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chili, along with local ingredients such as coconut milk, seafood, and root vegetables.
Fijian curries are often prepared with a mix of Indian and Fijian spices and are known for their rich and aromatic flavours. Curry dishes, such as chicken curry, fish curry, or goat curry, are popular in Fiji and enjoyed with rice, roti, or cassava.
Curry also plays an important role in Jamaican cuisine, reflecting the country’s historical connections to Indian indentured laborers who arrived in the 19th century. Jamaican curry is known for its vibrant flavours and distinctive spice blends. The main difference between Jamaican and Indian curries lies in the spice composition. Jamaican curry powder typically includes spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and allspice, which give it a unique flavour profile.
Popular Jamaican curry dishes include curry chicken, curry goat, or curry shrimp, which are cooked with a medley of ingredients such as onions, garlic, thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, and coconut milk. Jamaican curries often have a spicy kick and are commonly served with rice and peas, roti, or breadfruit.
Curries that are Not Indian
Hopefully I’ve established how curry has spread from India to the rest of the world. But there are a few cuisines with “curries” (at least that’s what we call them in English) that are not related to Indian dishes.
Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, for example, all have dishes referred to as curry in English but have distinct and older lineage not related to colonialism or Indian immigration (although Malaysia also has a large Indian population).
Thai curries are known for their vibrant flavours and often incorporate a combination of aromatic herbs, spices, and a paste made from ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, chili peppers, and shrimp paste. The popular Thai curries include green curry (spicy and aromatic), red curry (slightly milder), yellow curry (mild and fragrant), and Massaman curry (rich and mildly sweet).
We don’t really know when these dishes from Thailand were first given the name “curry” – but their ingredients, taste, and style of cooking are all significantly different from most western people’s understandings of “curry”.
Never miss an episode
Throughout this episode, I’ve tried to highlight how food, immigration, and colonialism are intimately linked. What you may consider to be “Indian” food in your country is likely very different from what food is actually like in India.
But curry is now one of the most popular dishes around the world. In the UK, almost every week I would cook some version of curry at home. And now I’m in Japan, I eat kare raisu almost every week as well.
It really is a demonstration of how, in a relatively short period of time, foods and dishes can spread around the globe, change, and become part of a culinary tradition!
What do you think? Do you like “curry”? What is your “favourite” Indian dish?