There are lots of different explanations as to how the word “curry” came to mean a spice food with the most common one being that the root word is the Tamil word “kari”, which means gravy (or sauce).
But here we’re not really that interested in how the word “curry” came into existence. What we are interested in is the food.
Broadly speaking, a curry is spicy to an extent. The spice level of a curry can range from very mild all the way to very hot. It is the spice level that makes some people wary of eating curries. Some people just cannot eat a hot curry whereas some people love hot curries. Some curry dishes are usually pretty mild (such as a korma), some are usually hot (such as a vindaloo) and there are a lot of different spice levels in between. Curry recipes differ between restaurants, and the heat level of the same dish can differ quite wildly from one restaurant to another.
What most of us in the UK mean when we say the word “curry” is an Indian curry. To introduce a bit of confusion, a UK restaurant that sells an “Indian” curry restaurant is more than likely owned and staffed with Bangladeshi people (or, to be even more precise, Sylheti people). Why the confusion? Well, until 1947, India encompassed all of the territory now known as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (in 1947, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan and was called East Pakistan – Bangladesh became a separate country in 1971). The British ruled India until 1947 and had been in India for over 300 years (use Google if you want to find out more). Whilst in India, a lot of British came to love curries and took the love, and recipes, back to the UK when they left.
In the early days, it was hard to find some ingredients for curries in the UK so the recipes were adapted to use whatever local ingredients existed. And changing the recipes also took place in India itself so that the curries appealed more to British taste buds.
So, gradually, different curry recipes evolved in the UK and, today, a lot of curry recipes would not even be recognised on the Indian subcontinent. And new recipes were created in the UK. Chicken Tikka Masala was supposedly invented in Glasgow and Balti dishes evolved in Birmingham.
But there are lots of countries where people commonly eat curries. Most of these countries are in South East Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Japan) but nowadays curries are eaten worldwide and countries with their own styles of curries also include Jamaica and South Africa, as well as the UK.
So what is a curry?
As mentioned earlier, curries usually contain spices, with the most common spices being chilli powder, turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, salt, mustard seeds and cardamoms (these are the more common spices but there are many more spices used in curries). Each curry recipe will have its own combination and quantity of spices.
There are also other common ingredients in curries including chillies, onions, capsicum (bell peppers) and coconut milk.
Probably the most widely known curry ingredient is the chilli, which can be added to curries in its natural vegetable state or as chilli powder (made from drying and crushing chillies). Generally speaking, it is the chilli that gives a curry its heat. There is a huge range of chillies. Each different type of chilli has its own heat level. If you’re making your own curries, you can control the heat level to an extent by reducing, or increasing, the amount of chilli in the curry.
A curry can contain meat or just vegetables (or even both). A lot of people on the Indian subcontinent are vegetarians (mainly Hindus) but a there are also millions of meat eaters (mainly Muslims and Christians).
There are lots of different types of curry dish, such as dal, balti, biryani, madras, vindaloo, jalfrezi, bhuna, dopiasa and korma.
A lot of curries start with frying some ingredients. Traditionally, ghee (clarified butter) would be used to fry the ingredients but nowadays more healthy cooking oils are often used.
Curries are often eaten with rice.
As well as the curry dishes themselves, there is a wide variety of breads and side dishes that are eaten with curries, such as poppadoms, roti, naan bread, poori, samosas, bhaji and raita. There is also a wide range of drinks to have with a curry, including mango lassi, masala chai and beer. And, of course, there are also desserts.
As you can see, the word “curry” covers a host of different dishes and flavours.
You can buy curries from restaurants (also called curry houses), either eating at the restaurant or having a takeaway, or from supermarkets (frozen or in a container where you just heat up the curry).
You can also make your own curries. There are thousands of curry recipes all over the Internet with some excellent curry recipes being on the Curry Focus website. The beauty about making your own curries is that you control the ingredients (no additives or preservatives) and can adjust the ingredients to suit yourself. Whilst the range of spices is large, you only have to buy the ones that you need for a recipe to start with. You can freeze leftover curries and take them to work for a tasty lunch. Yummy.