How do you even describe the curry? Tasty, aromatic, rich, creamy and maybe spicy come to mind. But while those familiar with curry have a vague idea of ​​what it is, curry is such a broad category that encompasses such a diverse array of dishes, it’s hard to explain what is considered curry and what who is not.

As a second generation American Indian who grew up eating what many would consider “curry”, I have never heard the word “curry” at home or in my community – and that’s because the term is not Indian at all.

“I think ‘Indian-ish’ is a useful word to explain curry,” said Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University and editor of “Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia “. in French cuisine? The sauce can be based on butter or broth; the sauce can be creamy; the sauce may be sour. The sauce can have different ingredients and flavors. It’s the best analogy for curry. “

The word “curry” was used as an umbrella term by British colonizers in India as a simple way to refer to tasty Indian dishes – dishes from different parts of a country with a myriad of cultures and 19,500 languages, dishes that used different types of ingredients and were not necessarily related to each other. Some etymologists suggest that the word “curry” is derived from the word “kari”, which means pepper or spicy sauce in Tamil, a language of southern India.

So you can see why curry is hard to explain: it’s more of an idea than a tangible thing. And the curry powder adds another layer of complexity.

Jerrelle guy

The British wanted to capture the nuanced and spicy flavors of the dishes they ate in India and bring them home. This is actually why they developed curry powder – which is also not used in traditional Indian cuisine. Curry powder is a blend of spices like turmeric, cumin, ginger, cilantro, and chili, and has become a portable way to try and replicate the flavors of Indian dishes. When a dish is “curry” like in “chicken curry salad” or “curry cauliflower”, it basically means that curry powder or other Indian spices are used to flavor it.

Chicken wings curry

Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Today, there are versions of curry all over the world, influenced by cultural and political factors, as well as immigration and tourism. And that largely determines what is called curry and what isn’t. For example, South Asian dals, or lentil stews, are considered curry, while Ethiopian misir wat, creamy red lentils with Ethiopian spices, are not considered curry.

That’s because the name “curry” was first imposed by the British and then popularized by tourism, explained Ray. For example, the wacky Thai dishes that the world knows as green curry, red curry, and massaman curry are so called because the tourist economy the country relies on benefits from the labeling of dishes from a way that foreign tourists understand. Since tourism was not a big part of Ethiopia’s economy, this is one of the reasons dishes like misir wat have kept their name, Ray said.

The different forms of curry tell the story of spices, colonization, globalization and immigration. Here are some examples:

south asian curry

Indians and other South Asians do not use the word “curry” as it is largely a catch-all term for so many dishes. Examples include chana masala, chicken tikka masala (which has an interesting origin story), lamb korma, and xitti kodi (Goan fish curry). You will find versions of these dishes with different cultural variations throughout South and Southeast Asia, from India to Malaysia and Myanmar. The curry that most people know in the West was popularized in the 1850s and early 1900s by Bangaldeshi members of the British Merchant Navy who settled elsewhere and opened Indian restaurants, often in port towns.

“They’re becoming a part of this global economy of what’s called Indian curry in London, New York, New Orleans,” Ray said.

Chana Masala (Garbanzo Curry)

Maneet Chauhan

Depending on the region of origin of the dish and the preference of the cook, South Asian curries can be made with coconut, cream, yogurt, water / broth, tomato or nuts – or a combination. Most start by sautéing aromatics like onions and garlic. They can be spicy or sweet. They can have the texture of a thick mash, like saag paneer, or gravy, like korma, and they are eaten with rice and flatbreads like naan, chapati, and paratha.

Today, curry is synonymous with South Asian cuisine, and while many have adopted the term as a simple way to describe dishes in sauce, others see it as an erasure of cultural nuances. and find it offensive.

thai curry

What we know today as Thai curries has its roots in Indian cuisine thousands of years before British colonialism. However, the popularity of the term “curry” has led to standardize these dishes and label them “curry” in very touristy Thailand.

“It’s not like there is a green curry, a red curry and a yellow curry originally in Thai cuisine,” Ray said. “People made versions of these dishes, but they weren’t named or standardized that way. It emerged as part of the tourist economy.

Easy Thai tofu with red coconut curry

Maggie Shi / TODAY

Thai curries have a different preparation style and flavor profile than South Asian curries. They are usually made by first creating and sautéing a concentrated paste with ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, lime makrut leaves, and chili peppers, then adding coconut milk, vegetables, meat and flavors like fish sauce. The exact list of ingredients depends on the type of curry. Thai curry is eaten over rice and, unlike South Asian curry, is usually not served with bread.

Japanese curry

Creating Japanese curry was almost like a cooking game over the phone.

“It was the Japanese absorption of the British interpretation of Indian curry,” Ray explained. “And why did they do it? They saw the British spread curry and read it as an example of a world dominant cosmopolitan culture – which was Japan’s ambition. Eating curry has become a mark of sophistication, and Japanese cooks have taken the concept and used it.

Chicken curry in a mini rice cooker

TODAY Illustration / Vivian Aronson

Today, curry is indeed one of the most popular cooked dishes in Japan.

Like curry elsewhere, regions and families have their own versions of Japanese curry (kare), usually a thick, sweet, and mild sauce. Japanese kare raisu is made with red kare, potatoes, onions and carrots, with beef or chicken and served over rice with fukujinzuke (a type of tsukemono, or Japanese-style pickle), while that katsukarē has tonkatsu (panko breaded pork chops) or chicken katsu served over rice and gravy. To make kare at home, you can purchase blocks of red kare, which incorporates curry spices, fat, and flour, and lets you instantly create a thick sauce.

West Indian curry

Curry has different interpretations depending on where you are in the West Indies. In places like Guyana and Trinidad, which are heavily populated by people of Indian descent (Indians were brought there as indentured laborers in the 1800s), curries have a certain similarity to what one would find in India. But they will often use local ingredients, like Scotch Bonnet peppers and goat cheese as the main protein.

Toronto’s Street Shak serves Bajan curry goat cheese with coconut rice, peas and coleslaw.Steve Russell / Getty Images

Jamaican curries are much more influenced by the British interpretation of curry, as these curries are made with curry powder and can include ingredients like Worcestershire sauce and vinegar. Jamaican curry powder is also different from the curry powder used in British Indian cuisine, as it often includes hot peppers, nutmeg, and Scotch Bonnet peppers. Coconut milk or broth is added, along with vegetables and meat, and it’s served with rice, beans, and sides like plantains.

west african curry

Like Jamaica, West African countries like Nigeria were introduced to curry powder by the British, and they put their own twist on it and used it in chicken or goat curries. It is often used in egusi soup, sometimes called egusi curry, a popular Nigerian dish made from melon seeds, meat, and vegetables (in Ghana it is called agushi curry or stew). West African peanut (or groundnut) stew, made with starchy vegetables and meat, is also sometimes called curry.

Spinach and Agushi Curry

Nassima Rothacker

West African curries are known for their heat and abundant use of chili peppers. The curries here are served with a variety of sides, including diced citrus, peanuts, chopped dates, ground dried shrimp, mangoes, papayas, and bananas, helping to balance the heat.

Durban curry

South Africa has one of the largest populations of people of Indian descent outside of India, as many were brought there in the 1800s as indentured servants. There in the city of Durban, they developed their own unique South African Indian curry dishes which are often of a finer consistency and even spicier than their Indian counterparts. In fact, Durban curry is a bright, fiery red, denoting its warmth, and varieties include Zulu chicken curry, mutton, and fish.

A plate of traditional Durban style lamb curry from South Africa.David Buzzard / Getty Images

Durban curry was created as an act of survival in the midst of apartheid and evolved based on the ingredients people had access to, such as dried fish and potatoes, which are used to thicken curry based of water instead of coconut milk. Then the dish evolved into the street food bunny chow, which includes a quarter, half, or even a full, hollowed-out, curry-filled loaf of bread.



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