From the Tamil kari, meaning "sauce"
People often think of curry as a spice, but in fact the Tamil word kari means soup or sauce, and refers to a dish cooked in a spicy sauce. However, the British mistakenly applied the word to the mixture of spices used to flavor these dishes, and "curry" has held this alternate meaning ever since.
There is a curry recipe included in a cookbook from the fifth century BC, in which the Indian author describes the food prepared by the priests to offer to the gods in the temples. During the festival in honour of the god Shiva, every family was obliged to bring to the temple a curry which the priests would share with the goddess. The curry described in this 2500-year-old volume is still recognizable today: the basic recipe is immutable. Around the year 1, the Bhagavad Gita advised against the eating of curry since this food, it said, was liable to incite passions and quarrelsome moods - but curry was already too firmly entrenched in Indian life, and it has remained the cornerstone of Indian cooking to this day.
In India and Pakistan, curry includes approximately 20 spices that are crushed in a mortar. The mixture is heated and then browned in a bit of clarified butter (ghee) or oil. Various forms of this spice blend are also available commercially in paste or powdered forms for convenient use.
Though the basic mixture does not change much, the number of components in curry can vary by social class, region and family. The ingredients and proportions are adapted to suit a specific dish, depending on whether it includes poultry, fish or vegetables. Thus you'll find:
- mild curries, to which ground almonds, coconut, etc. are often added
- medium hot curries
- hot curries, spiced with pepper, chilies, etc.
Chinese style curry powder is also a mix of various spices, including turmeric, ginger, cumin, mustard and bay leaf. It was brought to China from India and was adapted to Chinese tastes for use with meat and sauced shrimp dishes.
Among the components of curry is saffron, a very expensive spice which is often replaced by turmeric to provide the characteristic golden color. But the blend of spices called "curry" can vary widely, depending on the country and region in which it is prepared and used.
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