Who's Right About Curry?
We see the word curry in the supermarket, in restaurants, and in cooking videos all over the internet. It’s been advertised in sauces, stews, sandwiches, pre-packaged snacks, instant noodles, and the list goes on. A word like this is used loosely to describe so many different flavours that it's hard to pin down what it actually means. But…what makes something a ‘curry’?
Photo Credit: Deep Foods
A curry dish is commonly described as a protein simmered in a thick gravy flavoured with aromatics and spices. But, to put it quite bluntly, labelling a dish as a ‘curry’ is essentially meaningless since no two curry dishes are alike. Ranging from India to the UK to even the West Indies, every culture has a different idea of what makes their quintessential curry.
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Saying all curries are alike is like saying all pizzas are alike. New York-style pizza is a pizza made of a thinner crust with a luscious tomato sauce topped with a blend of melted cheeses. Whereas, Chicago deep dish pizza is made with a thicker pie-like crust with tomato sauce topped over the cheese blend. On the other hand, Naples-style pizza is a wood oven pizza that can be layered with a variety of sauces ranging from tomato to pesto to a white sauce topped with sliced cheese, meats, and various vegetables. While we all know dishes as ‘pizza’ there are a variety of differences between them. However, they all have three basic commonalities—crust, sauce, and cheese. Much like pizza, all curries are very different but share some common characteristics.
Photo Credit: Marion's Kitchen
In Thailand, a curry is a flavourful spicy dish containing some sort of protein, typically seafood or pork, simmered in a colourful green, red or yellow sauce that has been flavoured with aromatics such as ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, and chillies.
Photo Credit: New York Times
In Japan, curry is a rich glossy brown gravy flavoured with miso and curry powder that can be purchased in solid blocks at the grocery store. This block is simmered over a hot stove and mixed with hearty vegetables such as carrots and potatoes and served over white rice typically accompanied by a fried pork cutlet called pork tonkatsu.
Photo Credit: Keef Cooks
In England, curry is a dish that is considered almost as British as fish and chips. It can even be found in pubs where it is advertised as a smooth and creamy curry flavoured sauce poured over some sort of protein accompanied with chips.
Photo Credit: Food Network's Trinidadian Goat Curry
Throughout the Caribbean, curry is known as a spicy stew of tender meat or seafood served with a delicious buttery roti or long grain rice. The dish is typically flavoured with pre-mixed spices and gets its spicy taste from scotch bonnet peppers.
Photo Credit: The Spruce
Native to India, the curry plant is a tree or bush that can grow up to 20ft tall. The tree itself grows almond-shaped bright green aromatic leaves with a distinct citrusy flavour similar to lemongrass. Curry leaves are an important cooking ingredient across Southeast Asia; they are steeped in broths, teas, and sauces, are blended into refreshing drinks, and are used in medicinal practices.
British Spice Trade from Live Science
So…who is right? Who gets to declare that their curry is the most ‘authentic’? In a purely objective sense—no one because curry is actually a plant, not a dish. There are many theories and debates about where the word actually originated from. Many cite the Tamil word ‘kari’ which indirectly translates to ‘relish for rice’ or ‘sauce.’ This was first brought to the attention of the British through trade routes led by the British East India Company throughout the 16th century.
In India, ‘curry’ is considered to be a dismissive meaningless name created by colonists to describe Indian stews that have been flavoured with a blend of spices and aromatics.
Photo Credit: Masterclass
This anglicised term quickly gained popularity between the 16th and 20th centuries. Curry was used as an umbrella term to generalise and describe Asian dishes concocted with an exotic blend of spices. This label became a means to simplify the foreign dishes for the Western palette. Soon, all of these various stews and dishes came to be known as ‘curry.’
Photo Credit: BBC: How Spices Changed the World
Flash forward to today where a variety of ‘curry’ flavouring products can be purchased at grocery stores. Curry pastes that can be found in the ‘ethnic’ aisle are pastes made of fresh aromatics such as galangal, chilies, lemongrass, ginger, and herbs. Curry powders found in the spice aisle are a combination of dried spices that have been blended together to form a powder.
None of these ingredients are made from the curry plant- they are a product of a Western narrative of what Asian food is. There’s no such thing as an authentic ‘curry’ because it’s a meaningless colonial term that lacks uniformity. While the term lacks in uniform there are some characteristics of curries that the overall Asian diaspora can agree on - curry is a warm and comforting dish, typically cooked in a large pot, and made to share with friends and family.
Photo Credit: Sukhi's
A curry represents community and family, it is a dish that brings groups around the table to share their stories from the day. Despite its dismissive colonial label, all Asian diaspora collectively share individual memories of social gatherings where the main event is a large pot of food that tastes like home.
About our Author: Kayla
My name is Kayla and I have a passion for all things food. Growing up in an Indo-Caribbean/ Canadian family with a love of travel meant that everything we ate had a story or meaning behind it. The curries my mother made us were always 'Guyanese style' curries using a combination of readily available ingredients, combined with Caribbean spices that were influenced by South Asian flavours. The BBQs my family would host on the weekends always had an array of dishes inspired by African-style BBQs, Caribbean cooking methods, and Asian flavours-each component inspired by core memories that came together to create a carefully curated spread to share with friends. It's through gatherings like this that I learned about the sentiment impact that food has on us all and that the most personal way to show those around you that you care about them is by sharing an experience through home-cooked meals.