A brief history of curry
David Smith dusts down the history books
What is the history of curry? It's a question I get asked frequently by students
from around the world. There is no concise answer to this question. The history
of the spread and development of curry is worthy of a book all to itself. But I
will try my best to give a potted history.
First of all there's the tricky question of what we mean by curry.
If you take a look at all the different products on a typical British supermarket
shelf with "curry" in their name you'd probably be forgiven for thinking that curry
was just something that contained spices. Indeed, many people would define curry
as a spicy dish from India. Yet the word "curry" is not used as such in any of the
scores of languages from the Indian sub-continent.
The following is posting from the Chile-Heads mailing list which, I think, neatly
sums up what a curry is (or rather isn't). The author is Brent Thompson who is highly
knowledgeable on the subject and has lived in India. He wrote :
"the term curry itself isn't really used in India, except as a term appropriated
by the British to generically categorize a large set of different soup/stew preparations
ubiquitous in India and nearly always containing ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric,
chile, and oil (except in communities which eat neither onion or garlic, of course)
and which must have seemed all the same to the British, being all yellow/red, oily,
spicy/aromatic, and too pungent to taste anyway"
In the west, curry is now usually characterised by the type of curries popularised
by restaurants. My definition of a restaurant curry would be :
"A dish made with dried and fresh spices cooked in oil with a sauce made from pureed
onions, garlic and ginger. The variety of spices used can be extensive but the commonest
are chilli, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Other common ingredients are yoghurt,
cream and ground nuts."
"Curries" , as we westerners call them, have been made for centuries in the Indian
sub-continent both as a staple food and as a highly sophisticated cuisine. There
are vast regional variations and numerous well-defined cuisines which each have
their own history. The cuisine of an area is intimately linked with its whole history.
The conquest of new lands, being colonised by foreigners, migrations, patterns of
trade and so on all bring new influences to bear on how people cook and the ingredients
Take as an example the area of Goa in India. In Goa the various Hindu, Muslim and
Portuguese influences have mixed and merged over the centuries resulting in the
distinctive Goan cuisine of today. The famous "vindaloo" was originally a Portuguese
dish which has been altered over time to accommodate local tastes and local ingredients.
The spread of curry beyond its home in the sub-continent is inextricably linked
to the presence of the British Raj in India. Army personnel and civil servants acquired
a taste for spicy food whilst in India and brought their newly found dishes home
(or to other parts of the Empire) with them. The British adapted the local dishes
to suit their own tastes. Mulligatawny soup, for example, is an Anglicised version
of its more pungent Indian forbear which was actually a type of sauce. Similarly,
kedgeree was originally a rice and lentil dish but was adapted by the British to
be a breakfast dish containing fish.
In terms of modern history the popularity of curry in the UK and elsewhere is surely
linked to the rise of the "Indian" restaurant. Yet the majority of UK restaurants
are run by people of Bangladeshi, not Indian, origin. Their influences are obviously
from Bangladesh but the restaurateurs have in turn been influenced by the likes
and dislikes of their customers. They have modified dishes and incorporated new
dishes from other areas of the sub-continent.
What we call "curry" is now an international dish recognised on every continent.
Dishes develop and change according to a host of new influences. For instance, the
most popular curry in UK restaurants is Chicken Tikka Masala. Many people would
think of it as a typical Indian dish. But it is actually a restaurant invention
created in the UK by Bangladeshi restaurateurs. A true hybrid and a recent chapter
in the long history of curry.
(c) David Smith 1998