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Thursday, February 12, 2015

A History of Curry

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Spice

Ah, curry - so full of flavor, so packed with history, and so likely to cause confusion. I could write a book about curry*, but to keep this brief, I’ll just touch on the probable origins of curry and how it has traversed the world while picking up new ingredients and being influenced by local cuisines along the way. (And I might mention curry leaves, because I know you’re curious about those, too.)

One man’s curry is another man’s curry ketchup.

First thing’s first: Curry. What is it? Go to a restaurant (Indian, Thai, Caribbean, etc.), and “curry” will probably mean a dish of meat, fish, or vegetables cooked in a sauce flavored with various spices and served over rice. Go to a sandwich shop and you’ll probably see a “curried chicken salad” with ingredients bound together by mayo spiked with curry powder. Take a trip to Germany, and you’ll find Pommes (fries) or Wurst (sausage) doused in “Scharfes Curry Ketchup” – spicy curry ketchup. 

Then take a trip to the spice section in a grocery store, and you might see a few jars of yellow-ish, vaguely flavored “curry powder.” Find your way to Bazaar Spices, and you’ll find at least 15 (FIFTEEN!) types of curry powders and pastes from around the globe.

So you see, “curry” means many things to many, many people. But for this post, let’s call “curry powder” the blend of spices used to make “curry,” a type of food (protein or vegetable) seasoned with a blend of spices.

A tale as old as time.

The word “curry,” most agree, comes from the Tamil word “kari” (கறி), meaning “sauce.” (Tamil is a language spoken in southern India, among other places). The British “invention” of curry (more accurately the first Anglicization of the Tamil word) comes from 17th-century British traders in India who encountered a wide range of spiced sauces in the 1600s and decided to call ALL the things curry.  Interestingly, curry was all the rage in British high society until about the mid 1800s, when it fell out of favor with the upper crust but trickled down to the middle and lower classes to become the spiced food group favored by all.

Before the Brits, though, back in about 2000 or so BC, the people of the Indian subcontinent flavored their food with a combination of spices native to the area – turmeric, ginger, tamarind, and long pepper (also known as Javanese Long Pepper). A few years later (500 or so BC), these hungry residents were exporting cardamom, peppercorns, and other valuable spices, traversing to the Roman Empire by way of Egypt, and traveling to South East Asia via central Asia and China. With them, of course, were their spices, and on their travels they encountered, among other things, new spices! Back and forth this exchange of spices and cooking methods went, with the world as they knew it getting bigger and bigger.  Enter the Portuguese, Dutch, and eventually Spanish traders (beginning in the late 1400s AD), and a curry more accurate to what we know today was born, with no small thanks to that wunderkind of the New World, the chili pepper.

Curry, and all the spices associated with it, is truly a microcosm of the history of the world. (I can sense I’m beginning to go all Mark Kurlansky on you, so I’ll wrap this up.) With all the history and globe-trotting associated with it, how could curry NOT be loved by all?

Tune in to the next post for a little tasting of seven of the 15 curry blends we offer at Bazaar Spices, and learn a bit more about just a few of the many places that curry has gone.

But wait! What about the curry leaf?

The curry leaf is sometimes, but not always, found in curry dishes or curry powder blends. Curry leaves come from the curry tree (surprise!), a tree in the rue family (a family most known for another member, the citrus tree.) Curry leaves are described as having a pungent, lemony, and almost funky flavor, and are most commonly found in South Indian cuisine. As with most (all?) formerly obscure ingredients, you can even find curry leaves in your cocktail.

Piqued your interest? You know where to find them.

Map from Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham

* Thankfully, I don’t need to write a book about curry. If you want to learn more about curry’s colorful history, check out Curry – A Global History by Colleen Taylor Sen, Curry – A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, or A World of Curries – From Bombay to Bangkok, Java to Jamaica, Exciting Cookery Featuring Fresh and Exotic Spices by Dave DeWitt and Arthur Pais. They’re even available through the DC library system (or will be…once I return them.)

This post is part of our series on curry. For others in the series check out:
A History of Curry
Around the World of Curries
Vadouvan-Braised Potatoes and Chickpeas
Curry & Chocolate
Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

Kara Elder grew up playing in the kitchen cupboards and reading cookbooks for fun while watching her mom cook tasty Mexican meals. After graduating with a degree in Russian, she found herself increasingly interested in reading food blogs and planning menus. Kara is a Bazaar Spices Team Member and works for Joan Nathan, a DC-based cookbook author and food writer. She also writes for the Jewish Food Experience 

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