What is curry and where did it come from?
What is curry? Today, the word describes a bewildering number of spicy vegetable and meat stews from places as far-flung as the Indian subcontinent, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean Islands. There is little agreement about what actually constitutes a curry. And, until recently, how and when curry first appeared was a culinary mystery as well.
The term likely derives from kari, the word for sauce in Tamil, a South-Indian language. Perplexed by that region’s wide variety of savory dishes, 17th-century British traders lumped them all under the term curry. A curry, as the Brits defined it, might be a mélange of onion, ginger, turmeric, garlic, pepper, chilies, coriander, cumin, and other spices cooked with shellfish, meat, or vegetables.
Those curries, like the curries we know today, were the byproduct of more than a millennium of trade between the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia, which provided new ingredients to spice up traditional Indian stews. After the year 1000, Muslims brought their own cooking traditions from the west, including heavy use of meat, while Indian traders carried home new and exotic spices like cloves from Southeast Asia. And when the Portuguese built up their trading centers on the west coast of India in the 16th century, they threw chilies from the New World into the pot. (Your spicy vindaloo may sound like Hindi, but actually the word derives from the Portuguese terms for its original central ingredients: wine and garlic.)
But the original curry predates Europeans’ presence in India by about 4,000 years. Villagers living at the height of the Indus civilization used three key curry ingredients — ginger, garlic, and turmeric — in their cooking. This proto-curry, in fact, was eaten long before Arab, Chinese, Indian, and European traders plied the oceans in the past thousand years.