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And Perhaps Neither Do Curries
I was shopping for groceries online (I order most of my groceries through Peapod) and I came across a newly added product: a Thai red curry sauce. This is one of those pre-made sauces in a pouch that you just add to chicken and/or vegetables to make an instant dish. Of course, I would never buy this, I would just make my own Thai curry which I do quite often (sometimes obsessively). But, being the CulinaryLore guy, I had to read the reviews to see what customers were saying. Of course, some people loved it, and some hated it. But of the few hating it, one of them complained that it burned their tongue off and had no curry flavor because it DID NOT CONTAIN any CURRY POWDER!
For reference sake, I’ll go ahead and link you to the product on Amazon, Saffron Road Thai Red Curry Simmer Sauce.
I laughed when I read the curry powder complaint. I couldn’t help it. Of course it didn’t. Thai curries do not use curry powder of the kind you find in the grocery store spice aisle. Given that, the product contains little that would make it taste like an authentic Thai red curry. It has coconut milk, lemon grass, lime juice, Thai Basil leaves and spices. It also apple juice, paprika, and Xanthum gum as a binder and thickener. So, yes, I’m sure a dish made with this sauce would be disappointing unless, perhaps, you added your own Thai flavoring ingredients. But why bother? It’s just as simple to make a real Thai curry.
Thai curries are made with mixtures of chiles, aromatics, spices and other flavoring ingredients pounded into a paste. Sometimes, there can be up to twenty ingredients in the paste alone! So, trying to make a Thai curry with some McCormick curry powder would not remind you of the curries at your favorite Thai restaurant.
Is Curry Powder Indian?
But, here is the rub: Curry powder has nothing to do with Indian curries either. The most common story is that curry powder is a spice mixture invented Chinese cooks to emulate the Indian dishes British folks had grown used to during their occupation of India. This explains why we see curry on the menu of Chinese restaurants.
It doesn’t end there, though. Curry, in regards to Indian cuisine, is a controversial subject. Curry is not an Indian word (Hindi, Bangali, etc.). We are told that the word is a British invention based on another Indian word. However, just what Indian word, or dish this word derived from nobody seems to really know. Usually, all we are told is that it comes from an Indian word, or dish, kari. In fact, I have an acquaintance, born and bred in the United States but with Sri Lankan heritage, who insists on saying “kari” instead of curry, much to my annoyance, suddenly growing an accent.
What if I told Mr. Smarty Pants that there was no one dish, whether South Indian, North Indian, or Sri Lankin, called Kari? If you go to a restaurant in India to get some real Indian food, you will likely find no kari or curry.
The British probably did not pull the word out of thin air (or did they?), but the problem is that there are several candidates for its origin and they are debated, sometimes angrily. Lisa Keldke, in Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer, provides an excellent rundown of the various suggestions, which I have relied on heavily for what follows. To read much more about the subject, I’d highly recommend the book.
Some sources claim that curry is a variation of the Tamil word “kari,” which means “sauce” or something similar. Still, others think the word came from the name of a North Indian dish called khari, made with buttermilk and chickpea flour. A third suggestion is that curry derived from another word, kahari, which is a cooking vessel somewhat like a wok supposedly used to cook, ahem, curries.
There is also a leaf called kari (Murraya koenigii or Bergera koenigii) which is sometimes used in South India and Sri Lanka. This may be the origin of curry as well but the leaf is not always used.
All we know for sure is that most of those who have attempted to trace the origins of the word do believe that its source is ultimately Indian.
As I said, the British probably did not just make the term up out of whole cloth, but even so, it is hard to ignore that the only time the word is used in regards to dishes in India is when English is being spoken. As I pointed out above, it does not seem to exist as the name of any particular dishes or category of dishes in India, no matter which language is explored.
Here is where we get into a bit of difficulty. If you go to a “real” Indian restaurant you won’t see any “curry” on the menu. So, what if you go to a restaurant and you see a curry on the menu? It is not a “real” Indian restaurant. This bit of circular logic is far from convincing, illustrating just how confused the whole narrative has become.
Even if the curry was a real Indian dish, it would be one small part of an extremely broad culinary practice. Yet, it does not seem to be authentically Indian at all. When the average American thinks of Indian food as curry, we see that most Americans have never truly had Indian food. For that matter, we’ve never truly had many other types of cuisine. Chinese could be included in a large list, of course.
So, what do we do with curry powder? If you like curry powder, you can do anything you want with it. But realizing that by virtue of using the powder alone you are not making Indian food would probably broaden your horizons somewhat. Whether you believe that curry powder was a joke played on British folks by their Indian cooks, or something thrown together by Chinese cooks to imitate Indian flavors, this somewhat standard blend of spices is a far cry from the hundreds of spices and herbs that might be used in true India cooking. The familiar McCormick brand of curry powder, for example, contains:
CORIANDER, FENUGREEK, TURMERIC, CUMIN, BLACK PEPPER, BAY LEAVES, CELERY SEED, NUTMEG, CLOVES, ONION, RED PEPPER, AND GINGER.
It is hard to imagine how home cooks were fooled into thinking that such a mixture could possibly represent an entire cuisine.
In reality, Indian cooking doesn’t use standard blends. It’s more complex than that, with layers of flavor and chosen spices unique to each dish.
But, perhaps the joke really is on us. Food historian Madhur Jaffrey points out that “curry powders” are indeed manufactured in India, such as in Madras, and not an ounce of it is used domestically. It’s all exported! Also ironically, Caribbean cooks use often these imported products in “authentic Caribbean cuisine” for the very same kinds of Caribbean dishes we love.
Some would argue that, whether it be Indian, Thai, Caribbean, African, etc., no cuisine should ever use such premixed spices, no matter how exotic they are. I tend to disagree. A spice, whether a mixture or not, is just a flavoring ingredient. It’s up to the cook to make the dish something special. And the same can be said of using fresh ingredients pounded in a mortar.
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