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The Fascinating Story of CURRY

The Fascinating Story of CURRY

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A world cuisine notable for its flavor explosions, blending spices, regional diversity, and a balanced staple diet ~ Curry!

Altogether, the history of Curry is a fascinating story. It is about trade, travel, and immigration around the world, and the fusion and evolution of world cuisines. Let’s “curry” on!

THE EVOLUTION OF CURRY

Curry leaves tree plant close up

Curry is not a dish or any particular food with fixed ingredients. It is an oversimplified version of an ancient cuisine. Curry consists of a spiced stew with gravy cooked in a pot. It can either be a “dry curry” or wet. Of Indian origin or influence, this spiced dish consists of vegetables, meat, or other protein.

The word “curry” has a colonized touch to its origin. Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta (1501–1568) observed Indians’ eating habits in Conversations On the Simples Drugs and Medicinal Substances of India (1563).  He wrote that ‘they made dishes of fowl and flesh, which they call caril.’ (“Philosophy of Curry, Sejal Sukhadwala.”)

Later, Portuguese historians and travelers transformed the word from Karil to Caril. There are many ancient references to the dish in scriptures and writings about India.

In Indian Food: A Historical Companion, K. T. Achaya (1923–2002) describes one of the earliest recorded recipes for a curry in the second century AD. It listed the blending of pulses, vegetables, and meat to form something called Curry.

There are many curry lovers around the world, including Queen Victoria, who became the empress of India during the colonization. Although the Queen never visited India, she enjoyed curry and asked her Indian servants to cook curry dishes. Chicken curry soon became a favorite.

The dish is the earliest cooking method prevalent in India due to geographical and climatic reasons. Mainly, India practiced dehydrating, boiling, parboiling, steaming, pan-frying, deep-frying, dry-roasting, grilling, and baking. With the discovery of cow dung as fuel, slow cooking over low heat ensured precise burning at low temperatures.

This slow cooking was necessary for the hot climate of India. This meant that the freshly killed meat was cooked immediately over gentle heat for a long time. Round bottom cooking pots provided enough space for fat and spices to accumulate and produce oil. Grinding stones created perfect conditions for making Curry.

Indian cuisine is highly regional and diverse in different states of India. Hence, the taste prevalent in one place may differ from other places. The uses of spices and the amount of ingredients and the cooking time led to the creation of different curries. 

During colonization, Arab traders governed the lucrative spice trade until the fifteenth century. Europeans sought ways to break their monopoly. After the Fall of Constantinople, the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama (1469–1524) arrived at Calicut on the Malabar Coast in 1498. He established India’s first European colony in Goa, which lasted until 1961. The new colonizers married local women and initially embraced Indian food habits.

The East India Company was established to trade with India, eventually becoming more influential, establishing trading posts on the east and West coasts of India. The Company officials cultivated salad vegetables, cabbages, asparagus, cauliflowers, pumpkins, peas, and beans in their factories’ kitchen gardens, as Indian vegetables were not perfect to their taste.

Vintage engraving of the first fleet of the East India Company leaving Woolwich, 1601

Thousands of East India Company administrators and army officers were there by the nineteenth century. The wealthy officers had built separate kitchens to cook Western meat and Indian vegetarian food. This division started the British adaptation of Indian food, precisely ” Curry.” However, the Indians did not favor the British adaptation of “Indian Curries” as it did not appeal to their taste; instead, they adopted the Western style.

 

BRITISH EMBRACING THE “CURRY”

The British East India Company started opening more factories after setting up one in Surat, in western India. Presidency towns were established, which eventually became their headquarters and trading hubs, laying the foundations of British colonization. The company officials had a luxurious life and enjoyed riches more than the British aristocracy back home. Britishers who settled in India and married local women adopted the terms Anglo Indians, East Indians, or simply Indians.

During their early settlement, the British tried to adopt the Indian culture, ate Indian food, and threw parties and receptions to show their new social status.

After invading and keeping Goa under control for seventeen years in 1797, the British started experimenting with Goan food, which appealed to their taste buds more. It was meatier than any other Indian dish. Many curries that had attracted the British were mainly Muslim, Parsi, or Goan Christian meat curries of the time. When they left in 1813, they replaced Goan cooks and employed Muslim cooks.

The British had less spicy, plain, or bland dishes in the eighteenth century. So, the Indian dishes worked as an antidote against the native ones. When the curries came up and equipped the taste buds of the British, they welcomed the Indian “curries,” even those who had never visited India nor had any cultural experience. By the end of the century, spices became essential in cooking.

When the British power in India expanded over the years, they extended the territories. They were interested primarily in money and power and focused less on the nuances of Indian cooking. Each region had different variants, tastes, and curry recipes, which the British needed to be more bothered to dig deep into. Hence, they randomly borrowed all the regional differences and techniques and added them under curries. Also, the limited knowledge of handling spices came as a drawback that eventually led to the universality of the dish or homogenization to the generic pan-Indian curries that lost their originality.

During the Second World War, the army messes served Indian curries, and the army cooks received monthly supplies of curry powder. Many British had their first experience with Curry during their service in the Navy or Army.

By the 1840s, curries also came to be referenced as a part of socio-political conversations in Britain. In 1845, the Duke of Norfolk attracted renown when he proposed that laborers starving due to the Great Famine in Ireland should relieve their hunger by eating curry powder mixed with water.

There were nominal differences in how Anglo-Indians in India and the British in Britain prepared curries, but the procedure was the same.

Many British dishes have been Indianised and thoroughly incorporated into the local cuisines, especially in Kolkata and Mumbai, served in homes, clubs, and hotel restaurants.

 

CURRIES AROUND THE WORLD 

Curry was never alone as an Indian or British dish. Most other countries have curry and curry-like dishes as well. There were many ways in which Curry spread around the world, but the most significant ones were through Indian indentured laborers and industrialization.

When slavery was abolished in the British Empire by 1833, many formerly enslaved people were unwilling to return to their plantation work. As a solution, the British introduced another system similar to slavery in which poor peasants had to sign up for binding contracts for up to ten years.

They sent the first workers to Demerara in 1838, Mauritius in 1843, British Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica in 1845, and South Africa and Fiji in the 1870s. And some went to Ceylon and Malaysia. They cooked their family recipes, adapting them using native ingredients and changing the countries’ culinary conventions. In addition, the British also introduced Curry to their colonies by shipping curry powders, curry pastes, and curry cookbooks. Anglo-Indian officials who went to live or work abroad also took their recipes.

Each country has blended its traditional recipes and skills with those of India to create something new yet retaining the characteristics of India. Curries have adapted locally using available ingredients and flavors that diversify each region.

Most Asian countries have rice as their main course, thus served with accompaniments that include curries.

In Indonesia, curries included tomatoes and European vegetables planted in the highlands by the Dutch. Indians introduced onions, aubergines, and cucumbers.

The cuisine of Java is milder, balancing sweet, sour, and hot flavors, and has a wide variety of curries.

During the seventeenth century, when the Indians took Gujarati and South Indian dishes to Malaysia, they influenced the Malaysians and the Chinese traders brought by the British to the same land. The star anise introduced by the Japanese, along with Indian spices, gave way to more coconut-based curries.

Japanese curry and rice.

Before the American Revolution, wealthy Americans ordered Indian spices from England or the Caribbean, including cardamom, pepper, saffron, turmeric, cumin, ginger, and curry powder.

The world recognition of Curry and its adoption in different countries is the reason behind the wide variety of curries where the experimentation of spices occurs.. Blending herbs can produce something unique or distinct when curiosity and diversity come together. So even though the term curry is a name for a wet or dry gravy dish, it has clubbed varieties of different tastes and cooking methods. And only some of the curries are the same. It just forms and adapts to a nation’s history and culture, just like how water varies in shape and form but serves the same purpose!

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