Everyone knows what 'Curry' is... or at least they think they do
Everyone knows what 'Curry' is... or at least they think they do
In much of the world, the term 'Curry' has come to mean 'Indian cuisine' as a whole while some think that it is any spicy (piquant) dish from any number of cuisines. Others think that 'Curry' is any dish that is heavily spiced with Indian or Thai spices, some think that it means a dish of meat or vegetable in a thick, spiced gravy, and many think it is a specific seasoning or flavor. Most people from the Indian sub-continent would say that 'Curry' is a word that they don't use at all; as a matter of fact, the word 'Curry' doesn't exist in any of India's twenty-three officially recognized languages or sixteen hundred separate spoken dialects.
So what is 'Curry'? Well, the truth is, the word 'Curry' means almost anything and nothing at the same time. It really means whatever the person using it intends it to mean based on their own perception. All I can tell you is where the word comes from; well, at least a couple of the theories of where it came from...
The origin of the word 'Curry' is the stuff of legend. Most have settled on the origin being the Tamil word 'Kari' meaning 'spiced sauce' or 'gravy'. It is believed that European merchants visiting India encountered 'Kari' (dishes consisting of meats or vegetables simmered in a spiced sauce or gravy) while trading with Tamil merchants along the Southeast coast of India sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century. Through these encounters, these merchants became familiar with Kari dishes and the spice blends used to make them - ‘Kari Podi’ (Podi: Tamil word for ‘powder’) and brought some of these blends, along with the word back to Europe. Over time, the word 'Kari' became anglicized and became ‘Curry’. True or not, almost every expert agrees that the word 'Curry' originates from India and was adapted and adopted by the British Raj.
Regardless of what the experts say, there is evidence that the word 'Curry' was English all along and that the similarity between 'Kari' and 'Curry' is just a coincidence. This leads to the theory that 'Curry' comes from much earlier.
'Cury' (one 'R') is the Old English word for cooking derived from the French 'Cuire' meaning to cook, boil, grill, etc from which we get the word cuisine. This truth leads to the belief that 'Curry' comes from a bastardization of this Old English word as in: 'The Cury of India' or Indian 'Cury' (meaning 'the cuisine of India' or 'Indian cooking').
This, plus the fact that by the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), English chooks were regularly using ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, galingale, cubebs, coriander, cumin, cardamom and aniseed, resulting in highly spiced cooking very similar to that found in India leads some to claim that the use of the word to describe Indian food and 'Curry' as a dish evolved in Britain well before the British Raj and was only expanded and evolved during the British Colonial Period.
The commercial spice blends known as ‘Curry Powder’ and 'Curry Paste' available today originated during British Colonialism when the personnel and soldiers of the British Raj developed a taste for the savory, spicy dishes of India. To satisfy those returning to Britain, British cooks made blends of Indian spices to cater to that desire for the flavors of India; eventually ‘standardizing’ theses blends into what we now know as ‘Curry Powder’ and 'Curry Paste'.
Whatever the truth, 'Curry' (the word and the subsequently named dishes), as it refers to Indian cuisine was readily adopted in Britain and has become a ubiquitous word to describe Indian food as a whole and even gave rise to 'Curry Powders' and 'Curry Pastes'.
As you may have already surmised, ‘Curry Powders’ and 'Curry Pastes', by name, are a Western invention that do not reflect any specific Indian cuisine or region and are not used in any traditional Indian recipes. They are instead, a blend of spices meant to impart the essence of the flavors found in traditional Indian cooking. They are a time saving invention meant to be a quick and convenient way of adding spices to a dish.
No individual (Indian or otherwise) that prepares Indian cuisine in the traditional manner uses commercial 'Curry Powders' or 'Curry Pastes' nor do they (with very few exceptions) make their own blends that are used generically
in a dish. Instead, they use different blends of spices for each recipe and insist on freshly ground spices rather than a bottled mixture that is probably of lesser quality and possibly stale. As stated, traditional Indian cooking blends individual spices as needed for a dish however, in our modern, fast paced, hectic world, even in India, convenience has become a part of the kitchen. Modern Indian cooks make wet and dry spice blends 'Masalas' for their own convenience and utilize them to reduce prep time and to speed cooking but each are uniquely blended for the intended dish(es).
The Hindi word 'Masala' is a generic term used to describe any single spice or blend of spices (whether wet or dry) and is used in the naming of dishes to indicate 'spiced' or flavored.
For all of these reasons, it could be said that the word 'Masala' is used in the same manner as 'Curry' and is therefore the appropriate word to use when discussing Indian cuisine. 'Masalas' could be called 'Curry Powders' or 'Curry Pastes' in today's vernacular but are technically not the same thing.
So after all of this, is 'Curry' Indian?
The only answer is: Yes AND No
The use of the word 'Curry' as a description of a type of traditional Indian dish or cooking method is fundamentally correct by the standards of modern vernacular and Western understanding as it is a modern perception of Indian cuisine based partly in tradition and partly in the 'Westernization' of Indian food. Using the word 'Curry' works because people 'think' they know what 'Curry' is even though Indian 'Curry' in and of itself is NOT a traditional Indian dish or type of dish, nor is it a specific flavor or spice.
As someone that teaches traditional Indian cuisine I am regularly forced to use the word 'Curry' to get a point across because of its modern connotations but I attempt to use it as little as possible and utilize it as a starting point for discussion to educate and expand the knowledge of those I instruct for more than just simplicity - Even though the word curry isn't Indian, I have to tell the truth and admit that there are many traditional Indian dishes generically called 'curries' even in India today; though this is a recent change historically speaking.
In the past, ALL traditional Indian dishes were called by specific names referring to their ingredients, region of origin, and/or their spicing and cooking methods but along with the British Raj and the spread of Indian cuisine Westward, came the generalization of many dishes being called simply a 'curry' with their original Indian titles lost to history or just not used today. This generalization has stuck and become acceptable to many but it does make it all but impossible in many cases to distinguish many traditional Indian recipes simply by their name AND makes Indian cuisine appear (at least to those that have limited or no knowledge of it) rather limited in its offerings.
I DO make and utilize my own 'Curry Powders' and 'Curry Pastes' to save time in my hectic schedule but I DO NOT view them or the dishes I prepare using them as 'traditional Indian cuisine'. I think of them as a shortcut food and describe them as a sub cuisine which I call 'Curry' and claim as British in origin.
For 'traditional Indian cuisine', I rely on a large number of individual, whole spices that I grind and blend fresh when needed choosing different combinations for each individual dish. This, as well as when and how the spices are added to a dish makes every dish different and special.
Even with that said, Indian cuisine as a whole, is NOT 'Curry'. Using the word 'Curry' to describe Indian cuisine is a simplification of an extremely diverse and complex cuisine that has literally infinite variations of every single one of its traditional dishes and combinations. Many Indians (and myself) believe that the word 'Curry' is degrading to India's fabulous cuisine by oversimplifying it and distancing it from its culture.
There is nothing wrong with the word 'Curry' as long as you don't use it (in my opinion) to describe India's cuisine (that of tradition).
Instead, I believe that you should use it as a 'short hand' description and starting point to educate others. OR you can use it to describe a type of fusion cuisine that has spread around the world.