What is Curry?

A lot of people want to know what a curry is. We regularly receive emails asking about curries.

This article is not about the word “curry” coming from “kari”, which is widely agreed to mean sauce or gravy. If you want to find out about the derivation of the word then use Google as a research tool.

No, this article is about the food that is called curry or Indian food or a “ruby murray” (for the cockneys among us).

If somebody in the UK talks about a curry then are usually talking about an Indian curry. The British were in India for a long time and they fell in love with the food. When the British returned to the UK, they took their curry love back with them and the UK market for curries slowly began to grow.

At the present time, about 76% of British people eat a curry at least once a month and 35% eat a curry at least once a week.

There are about 10,000 curry houses in the UK (“curry house” is the most often used term for “curry restaurant”). British curry houses sell about £4 billion worth of curries every year and British supermarkets sell in excess of £0.5 billion worth of curries in a year.

Making and eating curries is a major industry in the UK.

But it is a bit of a mistake to call curries “Indian” food. For a start, most curry houses in the UK are owned by people from Bangladesh. British India was split into 2 separate states when the British left in 1947 – India and Pakistan (East Pakistan was part of Pakistan). Then East Pakistan became independent from Pakistan in 1971 and was renamed Bangladesh.

But the word “curry” is not just for “Indian” food – the term covers some foods from lots of Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Singapore, Japan and China. And also from the UK.

You probably would not normally associate the UK as being a source of curries but the wide consumption of curries in the UK has led to curry recipes being adapted for the British palate (and availability of ingredients) as well as the invention of a few dishes in the UK, with chicken tikka masala being the most obvious UK curry dish. In 2011, an amazing 1 in 7 curries sold in the UK was chicken tikka masala and now the UK exports tikka masala curries to India (strange but true).

Curry dishes change and evolve over time and it is not hard to understand that a lot of British-adapted curry dishes would be unrecognised in India today.

So what is a curry?

Well, a curry can be lots of things, just like a “roast” can be lots of things and a “Chinese” can be lots of things. But, essentially, a curry is food that contain spices. This is, of course, a bit of a simplification but it is pretty accurate.

The most common spices that are associated with curries are coriander, cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon. Other ingredients used in a lot of curries are ginger, garlic, onions, tomatoes, yoghurt and coconut milk.

Oh, and chillies. We cannot forget the mighty chilli (or chilli powder). It is the chilli in curries that generally provide the heat, although there is a wide variety of chillies and each type has its own heat levels.

The chilli is often thought of as being an Indian spice. But it originally came from the Americas not long after Columbus sailed there. Chillies came to India and replaced the long pepper that was previously used to provide heat to a curry. The chilli was easier to store and cheaper to grow than the long pepper. So it took over and the long pepper was pushed out. Chillies are now extensively grown in the Indian sub-continent and chilli powder is exported to the world.

But the presence of chilli in a curry does not mean that it will be spicy hot. Dried chillies are not as hot as fresh chillies and cutting out the seeds and membrane from a chilli greatly reduces the heat levels (the seeds and membrane contain capsaicin, which is the source of chilli heat).

And we cannot forget the other commonly used spice powders such as curry powder, garam masala and panch phoran. These powders are a mixture of spices that are roasted and then ground into a powder. Some people avoid using such powder mixtures and make their own spice mixtures fresh every time they make a curry. But using these powders does save time and they are widely used.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and is often used to colour and flavour rice although you only need to use a tiny amount of saffron at a time (saffron is a powerful spice). You can see why the spice is so expensive by reading the saffron spice blog.

You can see a brief summary of the most common curry ingredients by looking at our curry ingredients glossary page.

Curries almost always have a main ingredient as well as the spices. Most of India is Hindu and Hindus are vegetarians. But there are also a lot of muslims in the sub-continent (India is estimated to have at least 140 million muslims in what is recognised as a Hindu country) and also in the other curry loving countries where chicken, beef, lamb, fish and pork curry dishes are often eaten. The wide variety of vegetables and pulses has produced abundant vegetarian curry dishes for people to enjoy.

But the spices and ingredients are only part of what makes a curry – there are lots of different styles used in making curries. A chicken biryani is very different to a chicken madras curry. The most common types of curry are tikka, tandoori, korma, madras, jalfrezi, balti, bhuna, pathia, dopiasa (or dopiaza), biryani, pilau (or pulao), vindaloo and dal (or dahl) – the vindaloo dish is very popular in the UK and has become closely associated with the UK national sport of football.

There is a multitude of side dishes and breads that are eaten with curries (or by themselves), such as naan bread, roti, chapatti, dosa, paratha, poppadoms, samosas, bhajji, raita and lots of different chutneys and pickles. These lists of curry types and accompaniments is not exhaustive by any means. All you need to do is look at the recipe category page to see the wide range of dished that covered by the word “curry”. And you can see a brief summary of the common curry dishes by looking at the curry dishes glossary page.

You can curry almost anything as long as you can judge what ingredients to mix or have a recipe.

There are two groups of “leftover” curry recipes that are very popular where leftover turkey and leftover ham are made into curries. The search for these curry recipes peaks at set points in the year. Ham is a very popular Easter food and leftover ham curry recipes are eagerly looked for at this time. The main Thanksgiving dates for Canada (the second Monday in October) and the US (fourth Thursday in November) determine when the hunt for leftover turkey curry recipes will happen. And the festival of Christmas generates a huge surge of searches for leftover turkey curry and leftover ham curry recipes.

The Curry Focus team agrees that the fun part of curries is making your own. You have no control of the ingredients in a curry that is bought from a restaurant or a supermarket and making your own curry gives you complete control over what goes into you curry and how it is cooked. One big advantage of making your own curries is that you can adjust the spices and ingredients to suit your own tastes. So if you do not like the taste of turmeric then you cut down on using this spice whereas if you love the taste of fresh coriander (cilantro) then you can use it as a garnish on almost any curry that you want.

And making a curry does not need to be complicated. If you look at the Curry Focus curry recipes then you’ll see that the ingredients and cooking steps are clearly laid out in the sequence that they are needed for the curry dish.

Of course, some curry recipes are more complicated than others but the Curry Focus team regularly tests recipes on the website and then writes a review that rates the recipes for taste and also spice/heat level. Just look at the curry Recipe Reviews page to see the hundreds that we have tested.

All you need to do with the Curry Focus curry recipes is make sure you have the ingredients and we recommend that you prepare all of the ingredients before you start cooking (peel and grate the fresh ginger, peel and chop the onions, etc.). Make sure to see if you need to marinate some of the ingredients so you can do this in plenty of time.

And you do not need to buy every curry spice all at once. You just need to buy the spices that you need and, over time, you will build up a good collection of spices in your cupboard. Spices lose their potency over time so you should only buy enough spices to last a few months. You should not be tempted to buy a huge bag of a spice just because it is on special because you will be disappointed with the spice after a few months and will probably end up throwing them out (what a waste). You should store the spices in airtight containers (such as clean glass jars) and store them in a cupboard (some spices lose their power in the sunlight). Have a look at the blog on spices to see how to keep your curry spices fresh.

Some curry spices are really good from a health perspective and have been used to treat a big range of illnesses and diseases for centuries. Curcumin (which is in turmeric), garlic and capsaicin (which is in chillies) have widespread health applications and are being put into more mainstream medicines than ever before.

Have you ever noticed that curries often taste better the next day? There are several reasons why this happens and we wrote a blog called “Curry Tastes Better the Next Day” a couple of years ago about this really useful fact. Why useful? Because if you are holding a dinner party you can cook the curry the day before you need it at your leisure and then just heat it up on the actual dining time. Not only does your curry taste better, which is a perfect result, but you are more relaxed and do not have to be in the kitchen all evening.

All of this is very good I hear you say. But what about the calories? Aren’t curries packed with calories? Well, the answer is usually “no”. If you cook your own curries then you have a lot more control over the final calorie count that sits on your plate. A lot of restaurants have a tendency to use too much oil (or ghee) when making a curry and this can really crank up the number of calories. We wrote a series of articles called “Curry Calorie Count” that explains the problems with knowing how many calories you are eating.

But counting calories can be tedious and really difficult to do. So the recipe page on the Curry Focus website has been expanded to show the calories in a serving. Not all of the recipes have the calorie count yet but about 75% of curry recipes show this information and the target is to have 100% of the Curry Focus curry recipes with the calorie details shown.

To wrap up, a curry is a delicious dish that usually contains spices and is often eaten with rice. But that description would hardly tempt anybody would it? To the Curry Focus Team, a curry is a meal to be savoured and enjoyed (along with a couple of beers – optional) and there are so many different curry recipes it is unlikely that we will be able to taste a fraction of them in our lifetimes.

And curries have been popular for a long, long time. A couple of years ago some archaeologists found evidence of turmeric and ginger being used in cooking at a place called Farmana, which is not too far from New Delhi. What is unusual about that? Well, the find dated back some 4,000 years.

Curries have been around for 4,000 years! How about that? And they will probably be around for 4,000 more.

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