Maybe you’ve had a lovely curry for dinner. Or maybe you’re thinking of trying to cook one. This can be confusing since there are multiple things that bear that name. Read the curry basics right here and then start on your own curry-cooking adventure.
What are the elements that define a curry? Well, that would entirely depend on what is referenced with that name. Because when we say ‘curry’, we could be talking about the dish, the leaves, the powder, or even the ‘curries’. What’s the difference between all of these? Are you feeling just a little bit confused? Read on and find out all about the curry basics, so that you can identify them easier next time.
Now, even for a curry dish, the situation can be complicated, because a curry describes a large category of dishes, with different ways of making and different times it takes to cook them. But let’s take it one step at a time and discover these curry basics.
Curry basics: What are we talking about?
These curry things are actually an herb used in South Indian Cuisine, which originates from the curry leaf tree. Sometimes the curry leaves are ground and used in the spice mix that eventually becomes curry powder. Then, you should also know that the curry leaf tree is not the same as the curry plant. The latter is not really edible, it just has a name that evokes edible things. Confusing, we know, but we’re getting there with the knowledge.
So now that we know what curry leaves are not, let’s find out more about them. They belong to the citrus fruit family, they’re glossy green with a powerful flavor, bitter and sweet.
How to cook with them? Most of the time you can use them in lieu of bay leaves in all kinds of dishes like stews. The usual technique with curry leaves is to fry them a little in some oil, to get them to release their flavor.
Buy them at Indian and Asian food markets. Store them in the freezer.
This bright yellow curry powder looks a little bit like turmeric (though turmeric is a bit more on the golden side of the color wheel). But unlike turmeric, which is its own thing, curry powder is a mixture of spices that has no exact, classic recipe. You can make your own and adjust – there is no established ingredient list or ratio for the ingredients. So try some recipes you find online and then adjust so that the flavors are perfect for your tastes.
Some of the usual ingredients you might find in the recipes are turmeric, ginger, dry mustard, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and fenugreek. Usually, there are about 5-10 spices that make up your curry powder.
How did this come about? It’s actually a colonial British concept. British manufacturers concocted this powder to evoke the flavors of South India, so it’s more of a construct than a traditional thing. We could compare curry powder with the garam masala mixture, but one of them, the latter, is traditional, while the other one is not. If you're looking for some curry powder recipes to cook, you can find plenty of them right here.
Curry – the dish
So, what does that mean for curry – the dish? Especially since curry powder is a British invention? You might be surprised, but the dish is also pretty much British, too. That’s colonialism, for you! The word ‘curry’ is itself British (those saucy Brits, they labeled so many food items with it!) and its exact origin is not known. One hypothesis? It’s derived from the word ‘kari’, which means ‘sauce’ in Tamil, a South Indian language.
So, the Brits just took all of the savory and spicy Indian dishes and threw them into one category, not differentiating too much between them. But let’s try to define a curry since we’re here. A curry is a dish cooked in a spicy sauce. The dish is made with meat or vegetables. And it’s usually served with a side of rice.
Curry basics around the world
Because the British Empire was so large and influential, curries became exceedingly popular. That’s how a lot of other countries took over curries and put out their own versions.
There’s a Japanese version that’s sweet, mild, meaty and made with vegetables and gravy. Jamaica has its own famous curry, made with goat meat, allspice, and pimento. Then there’s Thailand’s curry, which resembles soup and is made with coconut milk and fiery chiles.