Origins of Curry Powder – fiery and flavourful

The origins of curry if you were to ask a non-native Indian ‘what is curry?’, I am sure almost 90% will say it’s a pre-packed spice blend in a jar found in supermarkets that are used for making Indian dishes.

the word ‘curry’ has many meanings and cultural permutations. It can be a type of dish, the sauce in a dish, a spice blend or even a culinary leaf!! Curry can also be any South Asian dish such as Thai curry, Japanese curry, Vietnamese curry none are made with curry powder.

Although not entirely false, this globalised ethnic spice blend has a history that strange as it may sound to you originates from England and not India.

DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 26: Indian shop on March 26, 2012, Delhi, India. Small shops like this are the most common in poor region of Delhi. Tourists can see the color of India in them.

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The origins of Curry Powder

When was curry invented in India? The history of curry powder goes back to the 18th century British rule in India. They loved the Indian flavours and the way food was prepared. The word curry is an anglicised version of an indigenous word from the Tamil culture.

Since Indian cuisine can be a bit complex given the variety of spices used, the cooking method and other ingredients, it was not easy to replicate the dishes as an Indian cook could.

A painting of the colonizers of India the origins of curry

To simplify the method of combining different types of spices that went into making an Indian dish, their solution was to select the most popularly used spices in Indian cooking and make it into a pre-blended spice mix.

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This spice blend made it easy to emulate the Indian flavours into a dish without the need to fuss about with different spices or buy different spices.As for the name, it was easy to call it ‘curry’ as in the Indian language it refers to any dish with a gravy or sauce.

Since most Indian dishes have sauce, ‘curry’ or ‘Kari’ as called in Hindi found its way in the dictionary and in the global culinary world representing Indian food.

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This was the origins of Curry Powder, now found on every supermarket or spice shelf as the popularity grew over the years.  

Curry Powder in Indian cuisine

Although the source and the origin of Curry powder came from India, there is little sign of ‘curry’ in Indian cuisine.

In fact, if you go to any Indian restaurant in India or abroad you won’t find curry listed on their menu. You may although find that the description of the dish may call it a curry just to explain the dish to Non-Indians.

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 It is to note that what you are served are authentic Indian dishes (depending on the restaurant) which have Indian names such as Butter chicken, daal, masallam, Rogan josh, Korma, bharta, dum alu etc.

I am sure reading the names above makes no sense to you apart from the first dish which is Butter chicken.

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This is because it can be easily understood that it’s some sort of a chicken dish made with butter. But this Butter chicken could well belong to any cuisine as the name is very western. So the description of the dish may read ‘marinated pieces of chicken in a spicy tomato and butter-based sauce or curry’.

This holds true for most descriptions of Indian food. Be it vegetables like peas, eggplant, potatoes everything comes under the broad umbrella of curry because it is an Indian dish.

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So there is logic in naming the spice blend  ‘curry powder’ to generalise Indian food.

What is curry powder made of?

Where does curry spice come from? The word curry comes from the Tamil word Kari which means sauce. In the Western world curry is a dish seasoned with a mixture of ground spices. It is thought to have originated in India.

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You may see different varieties, brands and packages of this pre-packaged mix, but no two mixes are the same. This is because it is difficult to find a mix with exactly the same type and quantity of spices.

A curry powder mix can have as many as 20 different spices in it.

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Curries can be divided into “dry” and wet curries. Instead of stewing meat and potatoes for a long time dry curries use ground meat and minced vegetables to save time and are obviously drier than a wet curry.

Spices used in curry power blends

  • turmeric
  • cumin
  • ground coriander
  • cloves
  • chillies
  • mustard seeds
  • bay leaves
  • cinnamon
  • cardamom

Over and above these some blends include other spices and herbs such as

 sesame seeds, saffron, nutmeg, fennel, dried curry leaves, tamarind and more.

A general curry powder blend could include a combination of any or as many of the above spices in different quantities and proportions. There is no one formula that fits all!! Given the complexity of spices that goes into making a curry spice blend, it’s difficult to replicate similar flavours for every blend.

My suggestion to you will be to try a few different brands and zero on to a mix that you think pleases your palate the most.

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Top 10 Types of curry

  1. Jalfrezi – 7/10 heat level, this curry uses a tomato-based sauce and a large amount of chopped peppers.
  2. Madras – 8/10 heat level – A Madras Curry Powder is spicier compared to standard Curry Powder.
  3. Rogan Josh – 4/10 heat level – A Rogan Josh is rich with clarified butter, and uses spices like cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, with lots of paprika.
  4. Bhuna – 6/10 heat level – A Bhuna is often made with lamb the ingredients are cooked slowly in bhuna paste, which combines with the meat’s juices to form a thick sauce
  5. Balti – 5/10 heat level – A balti is a stir-fried curry with goat, lamb or chicken, plenty of spices and herbs, served with cilantro leaves
  6. Dhansak – 5/10 heat level – Hot, sweet and sour tastes are all combined in a Dhansak, giving this curry dish a unique, rich flavour with the additions of lentils, sugar and lemon.
  7. Pasanda – 3/10 heat level – Pasanda is very similar to korma as it also contains ground almonds and cream but is seen to be milder in flavour.
  8. Tikka masala – 4/10 heat level – tikka masala is a tomato-based sauce made with a variety of spices. It tastes slightly spicy and earthy.
  9. Korma – 2/10 heat level – Korma curries usually include meat or vegetables in a mild yogurt sauce that’s seasoned with aromatic spices and can include ground almonds, coconut and cashews.
  10. Vindaloo – 11/10 heat level – Often a challenge of the drinking crowd after a booze-up. Vindaloo curries are usually made from all the ususal suspects. Vindaloo actually originated in Portugal, starting as a simple dish using wine vinegar and garlic.

Indian curry (Kari)

An Indian curry generally begins with a ginger and garlic paste that is fried in oil or ghee before adding them to the major ingredients like meats and vegetables. Curry leaves are often used to give that freshness and distinctive flavour.

Ground Coriander is used within the spice blend and fresh coriander (cilantro) is used in place of parsley in Indian cooking to add another note to the flavours of the dish.

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Ingredients central to most Indian dishes are:

  • Cardamom
  • Ginger
  • Cassia
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Clove
  • Pepper
  •  Tamarind
  • curry leaf
  • vanilla,
  • Chillies

North Indian curry spices include

  • Fenugreek – Fresh and dried fenugreek leaves can be used to finish dishes like sauces, curries, vegetable dishes, and soups. Fenugreek seeds can be used whole or ground and used in spice blends such as garam masala, panch phoran (Indian five-spice), or dry rubs for meat.
  • Garam masala – This spice blend is used more in the north of India. The blend usually includes cardamom, fennel seeds, mustard seeds and cloves along with pepper in the mix.
  • Amchoor is dried green mango powder, used to add a citrus tang to curries.
  • Tamarind – This is the main ingredient of Worcestershire sauce and it is added to curries to add a sour tang. Often it is used with coconut milk to temper its sourness.
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South Indian curry spices include:

  • Tamarind
  • Coconut milk or cream often enrich the base of the curry

Bangladeshi curry

In Bangladeshi curry, sumac is used to add a tart lemon flavour. Sumac is a Middle Eastern spice used across the Levantine countries to add a tang to recipes.

The most popular spice blend in Bangladesh is Panch Phoran which means “five spices.” It includes Cumin, Brown Mustard, Fenugreek, Nigella and Fennel. A lot of Bangladeshi curries are made with coconut milk or have a tomato-based sauce.

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Thai curry spices

Thai curry uses a lot of coconut milk whereas Indian curry use cream and ghee.

Ingredients used in Thai Curry

  • Kafir lime leaves and fruits
  • Green curry paste – this is considered the spiciest curry paste and includes: Green Chillies, lemongrass, Thai Basil, fresh cilantro, and Kafir lime leaves.
  • Red curry paste – Slightly milder than green but it does have 2 types of red chillies, Cumin, ground coriander, black mustard seeds and cayenne pepper.
  • Yellow curry paste – This is a milder sauce that has at its base coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass along with the traditional ingredients of  cumin, ground coriander, black mustard seeds and cayenne pepper.
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Indonesian curry Ingredients

In Indonesia, they use spices to add a warmer flavour to their curries. Rendang curries are very popular and they are dry curries. Galangal is very common in all Indonesian curries and it is a root spice similar in taste to ginger.

Ingredients used in Indonesian Curries

  • Nutmeg
  • cloves
  • cinnamon
  • Peanuts
  • Cashews
  • Soya sauce
  • Coriander
  • Ginger
  • Cumin
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The post was written to bring you the origins of curry powder and not to put you off or undermine its existence in the culinary world.

In my personal opinion, there is no harm in trying to simplify a cuisine and make one of the most popular International dishes, if I could bring it home in a jar.

After all curry powder has all the essential characteristics of spices used in Indian food, which makes making a dish with Indian flavours much easier.

It may not be the most authentic but it’s a good change of taste. So go ahead and enjoy the taste of India on your tables.

This guest post was written by Sunrita Dutta who likes to call herself a lazy cook with an easy style of turning bland food into bold flavours with a pinch of spice! Sunrita is an Indian cooking coach and spice blogger at www.spiceitupp.com. A blog dedicated to inspiring home cooks to overcome the worry of monotonous cooking and effortlessly introduce new flavours to everyday meals by simplifying the use of spices and making cooking fun again.

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