When you hear the word curry, you are instantly reminded of India. Unlike a specific dish, curry refers to a variety of dishes from India that use a large number of spices and herbs. The term is mostly used for gravy-based dishes that can be made from vegetables, fish, meat, and poultry. Curry is so popular that it would be impossible to find an Indian restaurant that does not have some kind of curry on the menu.
A brief history of curry
Archaeologists estimate that “curry” might have been prepared in India as far back as 2,600 B.C. during the Indus Valley civilization. This is based on findings that suggest the people used a mortar and pestle to ground spices and prepare dishes. Of course, the “curry” dishes of those times were far different from the ones we have now.
Over the next several millennia, India’s curry recipes started to evolve through trade and the exchange of spices. The Mughal Empire had a big influence in Northern Indian regions and gave rise to several curry dishes, largely meat and poultry based, that are famous even now.
India mostly used spices like pepper, cumin, mustard, tamarind, fennel, etc. to prepare their curries. When the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s, they introduced chili peppers, which began to be included in curries prepared by the locals.
When the British conquered India, they got smitten by curry. The dish was introduced in Britain in the 1800s and became very popular over the next couple of centuries. The popularity of curry in Britain can be gauged by the fact that Indian food is one of the most well-known styles of cuisine on the island.
Regional variations in India
Since India is a large country with 1.3 billion people, hundreds of communities, cultures, traditions, etc., curries vary by region. On a most basic level, one can group Indian curries into two types — North Indian and South Indian. North Indian curries are characterized by the usage of dairy, usually curd, as a base for the gravy. In contrast, South Indian curries can be identified by their usage of coconut paste as the base of their gravy dishes.
Within North India, some of the most popular curries come from Punjab, Rajasthan, and West Bengal. Punjabi curries liberally use curd for the base, with crowd favorites like Chicken Butter Masala (Paneer Butter Masala is the vegetarian version) and Rajma.
Rajasthan is largely a desert region in India. As such, their curries evolved over centuries to mostly use dry spices rather than fresh ones. Popular curries from this region include Laal Maans, a very famous meat curry, and Kadhi, which uses chickpea flour for the gravy. Curries from West Bengal can be characterized by the liberal use of mustard seeds and oil. Poppy seeds are also used. Bengali seafood curries tend to be very popular with foodies.
Down South, coconut and curry leaves are staples in every curry preparation. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are known for some of the hottest South Indian curries, largely because of their use of fresh green chilies and other spices. Kerala is famous for its “sadya,” which is a rice-based meal containing small portions of a variety of curries.
Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are other states in Southern India that have also contributed a lot to the development of curries. From the small state of Goa, the vindaloo curry preparation has become a hit, not just in India, but also in the West.
Despite its many variations, what one needs to understand about curry is that it is never a static dish. Curry preparations keep changing as Indians keep mixing and matching hundreds of spices and cooking methods. But what unites each curry is it’s undeniably spicy taste. A million variations; what’s your favorite?