Journey of the humble dish, Curry

‘One day the king begged us to eat cooked rice whose grains unbroken looked like jasmine buds, all the grains of the same size with no streaks and long like fingers along with curries (Kari) mixed with roasted seeds’

This is a verse from the Sangam literature Pathupattu that reflects the food habits of ancient Tamil Nadu written between 300 BC and 300 AD. From 300 AD to 21st Century, curry has spread beyond borders thanks to numerous invasions, colonial rule, overseas trade and slavery that has given different shades and nuances it exists with right now.

What is a curry? Merriam Webster dictionary defines curry as a dish or sauce in Indian cuisine with a mixture of pungent spices or a food seasoned with curry powder. Colleen Taylor Sen in her book ‘Curry: A Global History’ states that the dish got the name curry from South Indian language kari, a word commonly used for spiced dish of sautéed vegetables and meat in households.

Tamil style kari and parotta. It is popular among labourers and cheap. Source: Maunika Gowardhan

So how did this kari become curry? Simple answers would be spice trade that resulted in colonisation.

India had always attracted traders from across the world for its spices. Going by ancient records, it could be seen that Romans, Greeks and later Arabs had trade links with South Indian kings Chera, Chola and Pandya in 1st and 2nd Century AD. Portuguese came to India in 1498 and set up the first European trading centre in Kerala in 16th Century. They were followed by Dutch, French and British. For all of them spices, which were considered an exotic commodity, were a means to gain control of sea trade and establish dominance. As they colonised, these foreign empires assimilated Indian food habits into their culture and spread it to other colonies.

For instance, it is impossible to imagine a vindaloo, a curry dish, without Portuguese influence of chilli pepper that they introduced. According to the research paper ‘Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire’ Cecilia Y Leong-Salobir in 2011, Portuguese adopted the name Karil, which is still in use in Goa, to refer to these dishes. It later became curry, a dish that was popularised by the British as they established their empire in the then undivided India and across the world for trade. 

Popular Vindaloo dish in goa influenced by Portuguese. Source: hungryforever.com

That is exactly what Lizzie Collingham details in her book ‘The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World’. In the book Collingham follows the British as they sailed traversed the seas for trade, leaving a trail of colonies and in turn changing the food habits. Sometimes even tying them together.  

Before British came to India and even now, Indian dishes are defined as curry. They have different names such as korma or molee depending on the region they originated. When British came to India for spice trade in 17th Century, officers settled down and adopted local food and culture. Taylor in her book explains that while the Indian dish had regional differences, British had little familiarity with India’s other regional cuisines like vegetarian Gujarti dishes or seafood of Kerala. 

Chicken Korma, north Indian style. It is popularly called curry by non-Indians. Source: The Wanderlust Kitchen

“So there was a tendency to combine elements from different regions using a standard ingredient. Overtime curriesbecame less authentic and more pan-Indian,” Taylor says in the book. “The homegenisation was promoted by constant movement of British officials,” Taylor adds.  

When these officials moved back to London, they took with them Indian cooks and even established curry houses. Curry was first served in Norris Street Coffee house at Haymarket in 1733. From then on curry began to feature in restaurant menus and mushrooming Indian restaurants in Britain. By the end of 19th century curry became thoroughly integrated into middle-class British cuisine enough to include patrons anywhere from working-class to nobles.

But England is not the only country where curry spread and assimilated into its food culture. At one point in time British Empire was spread across the whole world from Americas to the far East Japan, where their trade routes extended. Wherever they went curry spread, ror Indians, who were recruited to work in the plantations of newly formed colonies, took with them their eating habits.

When British established colonies in Americas or South East, they needed labourers to work on their plantations. Taylor in her book states that ‘abolition of slave trade in British Empire in 1807 and slavery in 1833 created labour shortage in its colonies including Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Malaysia.’ So British recruited indentured labourers (bonded) from across India to work for a certain period of time in these colonies.

For instance, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago has over 40 per cent Indian population. According to the book ‘Curry: The Global History’, their cuisine reflects this ethnicity. In both regions curries are common main course and are served with rotis. Both the countries however have adopted local ingredients. In Trinidad and Tobago, curries use scotch bonnet instead of chilli pepper and shadow beni in place of coriander. 

Trinidad Chicken Curry. Source: Cooks With Cocktails

But it was not just colonies where curries became popular. Apart from England, Netherlands and Portugal too enjoy a culture of curry. While Indonesia influence is seen in Netherlands, you could spot Goan restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal. Even Germany has its Currywurst, fried pork sausage typically cut into slices and seasoned with curry powder and tomato sauce.

In fact, curry is the one of the most ubiquitous dish in Japanese homes. It was introduced in Japan in mid-18th century when ports of Yokohoma opened up for trade. The dish adapted to local ingredients and enjoys the status of Japanese dish.

This is how curry is made in Japan. Meat, most pork or beef, is cooked along with onion, carrot, potato in water till it becomes soft. Curry roux, which is available in any supermarket, is added to the mixture to make it thick. 

Japanese style curry. Source: Just One Cookbook

Yuko Shimizu, Japanese language teacher at Hayakawa Japanese language school in Chennai, said, “Japanese curriesare very easy to make. It is the dish you choose by default when you are not sure what do make for dinner that night or when you have to cook for many people like during school camps.”  

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