The 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 they use.

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