What comes to mind when you think of curry? Vindaloo, korma, tikka masala? Or maybe coconut milk scented with lemongrass, ginger and makrut lime from your favorite Thai restaurant? Do the flavors you imagine come from red-capped jars of curry powder you use to enhance your chicken salad? Or from the umami-filled golden blocks of paste you might find at a Japanese market? There’s a reason there are so many interpretations of curry, and today’s Daily Dose dives into the curious history, marked by misunderstandings and colonialism, that make up this continuously controversial dish.
Shaan Merchant, Reporter
a colonized history
1. The World's Oldest Food
Long before they were in your overpriced, appropriative latte, spices like turmeric and ginger were essential to the Indian diet. The Indus Civilization boomed from 2500 to 1700 B.C. with unmatched sophistication of urban centers and water systems, but we know little about it compared to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures to its west due to a yet untranslatable writing system. But a recent breakthrough in understanding the culture came with discovered traces of turmeric, ginger, and garlic on old cookery and human teeth, dating back 4,500 years. Given its nebulous definition, this finding makes curry the longest continuously eaten food in the world. But how did we get from baingan bharta and rogan josh and biryani to this odd, anglicized word?
2. Kari and Carel
While Kari and Carel sounds like a ’70s sitcom about roommates who work at a chocolate factory and the mischief they get into, it’s actually the first step in understanding where “curry” comes from. When the Portuguese arrived on the southern coast of India in 1498 in search of spices, they probably heard the word “kari” used around food. Depending on the pronunciation in the local Tamil, it could mean something similar to “biting into food” or “to blacken or season.” The colonizers spun this through their clumsy tongues and came up with “carel” as a sweeping term for all the food the Indigenous people ate.
3. The Empire Strikes
In the early 1600s, the British East India Company arrived and you already know what the next several hundred violent years looked like. Part of this colonization, of course, was through food. They took “carel” and spat out the word “curry” as a catchall for the food their local cooks would make for them. And the British Empire did with curry what they do best: take it over and make it bland. They packaged their interpretation into a spice mix, curry powder, which they sent home and to colonial subjects around the world.
4. The Empire Continues Striking
By the mid-1800s, curry was a staple in the British diet. Nearly every cookbook of the time featured a recipe, like Isabella Beeton’s 1861 bestseller, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, whose shoddy interpretation of the complex cuisine was a roux- and cream-thickened stew featuring apples and meat and flavored with the prepared powder. And this curry takeover worked to abet colonization in its own way: The Brits slapping their own seal onto curry stripped India of one of its most valued assets. “By virtue of their own domesticity, Victorian women could neutralize the threat of the Other by naturalizing the products of foreign lands,” Vassar’s Susan Zlotnick writes.
5. How Spicy Do You Want It?
The range of spiciness in curry has its own history that nods to the spread of chilies. When the Portuguese first arrived in India, they brought chiles from the New World with them, and they were an instant hit in the south. To this day, South Indian foods tend to be significantly more spicy than those in the north, where the sweeter and milder Kashmiri chile was native. When the British arrived, local cooks adapted the food to their meeker palates, leading to the milder spice levels in curry powder. Today, curry spice varies widely depending on whether there were native chiles present to add an extra kick (see: Caribbean) or inspiration was from the British with no added spice (see: Japan).
My grandmother tells the story of hosting my grandfather’s boss for dinner as a recent immigrant in the late 1960s. He had expressed his eagerness to try curry, so, only slightly surprised, she made kadhi, a thick yogurt and chickpea-flour stew that she’d specially dot with deep-fried pakoras. This is, of course, not what the boss man had in mind: He expected America’s definition of an Indian curry, like butter chicken, and she made a niche Indian farmer’s dish. While news of India’s curry had made its way across the globe, it hadn’t made it back to her.
2. The Caribbean
In 1833, the British Empire abolished slavery, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans and quickly finding themselves with a labor shortage at plantations across the globe. Their solution: their melanin-rich subjects to the east. Between 1834 and the early 1900s, more than 1.5 million South Asians were shipped to work as indentured servants in Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and notably Guyana and across the Caribbean. With this influx of people, a unique blended culture formed. Today, dishes like curry goat with rice and peas or roti (the flatbread, which has its own booming history mirroring that of curry) are a mainstay of Caribbean culture — its curry blends the coriander and ginger you might find in an Indian dish with West African scotch bonnets and Jamaican allspice.
3. Thailand and Singapore
As the buzz of spices faded, the empire looked for something more potent: opium. This led to trade posts along the Straits of Malacca for easy access to China, notably in Penang and Singapore. With the Thai, curry was an easy label for kaeng, the local spiced stews. Why try to learn a new word when you already have something you call an “Oriental ragout”? In the already politically complex Singapore, the addition of curry powder to a Cantonese noodle dish gave the city-state its namesake dish: Singapore noodles.
In Japan, curry rice, or kare raisu — often served with a pounded-out pork katsu — has quickly become a national dish. While the myth is that a shipwrecked British sailor brought the awe-inducing powder to their shores, a more likely scenario is that the 1868 opening of trade brought a desire for Western products, of which the Brits’ appropriative powder was now a mainstay. This explains the rich and sweet, roux-thickened curry of Japan seeming much more similar to that in Beeton’s book, for example, than to its South Asian counterpart. The dish, which Curry: A Global History author Colleen Sen calls “the antithesis of” Japan’s typically elegant cuisine, first gained popularity in the military and school cafeterias as an easy way of serving meat. The Japanese curry blocks even found their way into North Korea, where they became a unique currency of foreign mystery.
5. The U.S
Before the Immigration Act of 1965 brought immigrants from across Asia to the U.S. — and with them their curry traditions — America had its own curry, one that was even included in Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking and was the favorite dish of Gen. George Patton. Called Country Captain (“country” supposedly being nod to its Indian roots), this brown stew of chicken, curry powder and raisins is rumored to have come to the land of the “free” from a British soldier. First written about in Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book in 1857 Philadelphia, The New York Times’ Cecily Brownstone is credited with revitalizing it 100 years later and has the standard recipe if you’re looking to try it.
6. Where Curry Isn’t
The addictive nature of curry and the far reach of the empire’s bony fingers made it so that curry conquered most of the world, from South Africa’s bunny chow to Scandinavia's curry herring. While the line is fine now given immigration, certain cultures didn’t fall under the spell of curry. Spain avoided the spread for the most part, and as a result, its colonies in South and Central America don’t have significant curry traditions, though indigenous traditions like mole feel similar. France, too, pooh-poohed the Brits’ curry powder in favor of its own development, vadouvan, from the country’s brief colonial stint in Pondicherry.
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In 2011, a Singapore paper reported on a mediation court case, brought forward by a Chinese family frustrated by the smells created when their Indian neighbors cooked curry. The Community Mediation Centre ruled the Indian family could only cook aromatic foods when the Chinese family was not home. This sparked outrage in the multicultural city-state rife with racial, ethnic and class-based tensions. In response, a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” protest was held, garnering 57,600 participants including the presidential candidates at the time.
2. Alison Roman’s Stew (U.S.)
If you’ve been following the niche world of cancellations in food media, it’s been a busy year. If you’re just catching up, start with Roman. Considered by some an inspirational everywoman — known for easy but elegant recipes you might throw together for your Williamsburg dinner party featuring wine served in mismatched vintage jars — Roman first found herself in hot water for sanctimonious criticism of Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen. Less investigated but equally problematic is Roman’s mononymous “Stew.” The recipe, with more than 16,000 five-star reviews, played a role in vaulting her into stardom. It’s chickpeas and greens simmered in coconut milk with ginger and turmeric. Sound something like the curries of 2500 B.C.? Roman’s insistence that it isn’t a curry continues the colonial stripping of food from its culture and highlights how only certain faces can profit from appropriation.
3. ‘Curry & Chips’ (U.K.)
And in a win for canceling racists: Curry & Chips was a six-episode-long U.K. sitcom in 1969. It featured beloved actor Spike Milligan in brownface playing Paki-Paddy, a Pakistani Irishman. The U.K.’s Independent Television Authority canceled the show, citing racism, while the creator insisted he was criticizing British racism in a way the authorities couldn’t handle.
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Why not start at the root with the only Indian dish that sounds remotely like curry? This dish, like most on the subcontinent, varies between regions and families. The one my maternal grandmother made was thick and featured chickpea-flour fritters, while on my dad’s side, it would be thinner, blond and slightly sweet, studded with mustard seeds. While you likely won’t find kadhi at many restaurants, ask a friend for their recipe, or try this one from acclaimed writer Priya Krishna, which Bon Appetit horrifyingly calls “Creamy Indian Soup.”
This German concoction has a fascinating history of its own, featuring a badass woman, postwar optimism and a mysterious rendezvous with a British soldier, but curry found its way to Germany and quickly imprinted itself into German culture in the form of currywurst. This dish of a bratwurst cut into chunks, served with fries and smothered in a curry ketchup, has become an iconic late-night food of Berlin and is the noted favorite of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. If you’re in Berlin, visit one of the currywurst stands that claims to be as populous as Starbucks in New York City, or try making it yourself with a recipe like this one.
3. Hat Yai
If you find yourself in Portland, Oregon, do yourself a favor by visiting Hat Yai. Named after the city in southern Thailand, near the border of Malaysia, this casual restaurant honors the blended curry cultures of the region. Its fried chicken is flecked with aromatic mustard and cumin seeds and served with a sweet and coconut-y Malay-style curry and flaky, fresh-made rotis.