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The Origins of Curry

Date: 20.03.08

The salmon goes to the ocean and swims thousands of miles and stays in the ocean for a couple of years or even more, but eventually comes back to the same place where she was born to lay her eggs. Why do salmon come back to the same stream where they were born? This is a mystery and perhaps we would never know the answer. May be its imprinted in the genes. If the salmon can do that, human minds are more complex and more developed and it is human nature to delve deeper into the roots or to look for the origin and source of any thing it wants to know or find out, be it about its own existence. The subject under discussion here is not just hot, but its also spicy - I am talking about the origins of curry, which is reportedly 3,700 years old. And its debate is always as interesting as its taste.

It is very interesting to see that the earliest known reference to what we now call curry is found in Cuneiform text on clay tablets of the Mesopotamian civilization, which is known as the cradle of civilization - Babylon - or what we all know today as the unfortunate country, Iraq. And the tablets are dated about 1700 BC, and were reportedly discovered by Sumerians. The Middle English refer to curry as curreien, and the Anglo-Norman as curreier; in Latin it is con-rd-re. In old French it is refered to as correier. The Dutch have been calling it carriel and the Portuguese caril. The South Indian Tamils call it kari. The North Indians and Pakistanis refers it as kadi or kadhee. But what goes for curry today is the Anglicized version of Indian food and that is what makes the curry so hot, spicy and yummy.

From the North Indian perspective, the kadi or kadhee, which is prepared from Besan or chic peas flour, is purely a vegetarian dish and it is enjoyed equally by the rich and the poor. To prepare a good kadi is an art: it is cooked on slow heat for hours and hours; the pakoras in it are an integral part, and they have to be so perfect that they are neither hard nor soft. The texture of the kadi has to be thick and smooth. I will not discuss the recipe here but stick to its origins.

Reportedly, during the British Raj, when the Englishman first tasted kadi, it was this besan kadi. Since it was difficult for them to pronounce the words, they found it easer to call it 'curry'. The first impression for them was of a dish that was hot, spicy and with thick gravy. After eating that, anything that was hot, spicy and with gravy was referred to 'curry'. It was not their cup of tea, so they ignored it. Besides, it was beyond their dignity to eat a poor man's dish. I would call it a misfortune on their part - for ignoring it for several hundred years and then suddenly rediscovering it in the restaurants of London in the early 1970's! Since then it is their favourite dish. And once again, I am not referring to the besan ki kadi but what the Englishman call it in general, 'the curry'.

Its a shame that the finest delicacies prepared in traditional Mughul recipes, each one of them have a name like korma, pasandey, bhuna gosht, roghan josh, koftay, dupiaza, stew etc., yet all are referred as curry! The irony is none of the above dishes have the same ingredients or their method of preparation is the same. They are all prepared differently and meticulously and each has a different recipe, a different taste and different look. There are some new versions of curry or new names of curry in the restaurant business viz butter chicken, murgh makhani malai, chicken tikka masala, chicken65, balti gosht, dubba gosht, karai gosht, mutton karai etc.

Since the last three decades there is definitely some awareness among the general public especially in the UK and the non-desi clientele remembers the easier names like butter chicken, tandoori chicken and chicken tikka masala as opposed to what they used to say- only chicken curry and mutton curry. I have asked numerous Englishmen, Frenchmen and Canadians of European origin about the reasons for liking, or getting, this acquired taste of curry which some of them eat almost everyday, just like us. The response was that once you ate the spicy food, the bland food doesn't taste as good as it used to and, "we simply love curry!". The old expression 'a good curry always bites twice' you don't hear anymore, because they are used to it now.

Curry and curry powder are so common and so commercialised that you get them in packets. But the art of culinary cooking, be it the simple kadi or the preparation of the complex biryani cannot be imitated and wrapped into a packet. Even if it is, and gets commercialized for the masses, it will still not be the same as you and I can make at home. For that you don't have to be a master chef or a super mama, but to achieve the best results in Cuisine Bourgeoise you have to put your heart in it and not just your mind. You don't have to use the branded spicy curry packets for your cooking, but use the ingredients from scratch. You can nuke a ready made Bistro chicken curry with Uncle Ben's rice in the microwave and be happy that you have made chicken biryani in two minutes. I do not have the stomach to eat such lean mean cuisine or the Bistro Biryani packs. I believe that you eat your food with your eyes before you chew it. Hence its garnishing and presentation are very important and increases the appetite.


  • 12.03.08 - Javed A. Khan's culinary blog