The ship sails around the straits
Bringing spices around the country
Don't be choosy with spices' traits
Mixed in the pot it becomes curry...
It's somewhat ironic that a dish of sub-continental Indian origin has become so super-continental today until it is a Malay pantun (traditional four-line poem) that best describes the philosophy of curry’s ingredients.
Indeed, curry is one of those foods where today there is no single correct or authentic recipe yet when you eat it you know it’s a curry. After all curry is one of those concoctions based on a mix of spices, and there are hundreds of spices to choose from. Add to that the option of other flavourings from all types of onions, garlic, chilly peppers, coconut milk and what-have-you and the pantun becomes true: Mix them all in a pot and it’ll be curry.
In any case, today curry connotates cooking where a significant mix of spices are added, usually to all kinds of meats, giving a range of mixed pungent spicy tastes whether chilly hot or not and whether wet or even dry. With this definition, the earliest known recipe for spicy sauce with meat is found on ancient tablets discovered near Babylon in Mesopotamia, written in cuneiform script as invented by the Sumerians, dating from about 1700 BC.
Yet the name, concept and interpretations of “curry” today are largely Western ones, albeit from Eastern and Indian beginnings. Etymology-wise, the closest origin of the word “curry” comes from the Tamil word kari (கறி) which originally meant like any sauce, stew or condiment that accompanies rice or bread, whether it’s soupy or dry. It doesn’t mean ‘spices’ and it didn’t particularly mean a specific set of ingredients or recipe like that we know of curry today.
Indeed in the Indian sub-continent or South Asia (covering India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka), there was until recently no stand-alone dish named curry, as each of the thousands of dishes or recipes that contain the generic idea of spicy curries were called by their own specific names. These include what are known as kadhi or even kahri which is a range of North Indian yogurt-based spiced dishes, as well as the masala mixes.
Another theory of the curry’s name originates from the Indo-Pakistani word for cooking wok, karahi, similar to kuali in Malay in which all types of food can be cooked just like the numerous forms and mixes of curry.
Curry came to the West via the European colonisers; no prizes to guess that. The British in India would have heard and learnt of curry from the earlier Portuguese in southern India where they were familiarised with the local words kari and karil. Indeed, the oh-so-Indian sounding vindaloo (it's great with chicken) comes from the Portuguese vinho de alho or “wine of garlic”.
"Curry...what are your origins?"
Although there is no one specific or ‘pure’ curry dish, there are some basic ingredients that pretty much all curries have and, yes, they are all spices. They are; coriander seeds (biji ketumbar in Malay), turmeric (kunyit in Malay), cumin seeds (jintan putih in Malay) and almost as commonly fenugreek seeds (biji halba) as well. All are well-grinded into a consistent powder or paste form.
To the above curry spices base you can add cloves, garlic, curry leaves, fennel seeds, ginger, chillies, red or green peppers, mustard, salt, black pepper, white pepper, poppy seeds, anise, bengal garam, cardamom, cassia or cassia buds, celery seeds, cinnamon, dill seeds, mace, nagkeser, nutmeg, trifala and onion. And just about anything else that’s edible, no kidding.
It’s the combination as well as the proportion of each ingredient that makes every type of curry unique and is different for each region or nation, each producer or even cook.
For example, the Malays have long added lengkuas (galangal or wild ginger), tamarind, asam gelugur and make more use of santan or coconut milk in their curries or curry-like dishes. Different curry mixes have been found to best match specific meats including chicken, mutton, beef, water buffalo or animal parts such as intestine, tripe and even seafood besides different fishes, prawns, squid and so on. Not forgetting the vegetarian curries too.
In Southeast Asia, additional spice types enriched local cooking as soon as the Indians arrived and intermarried with native Austronesians i.e. the ethnological name of the ethno-linguistic grouping of Malays and almost all other indigenes of the Malay Archipelago, from at least 2000 years ago.
These eventually became the types of kari and gulai stews that are shared in the Malay World even before the modern countries of Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore emerged in the 20th century. For instance, rendang is a native semi-dry meat dish that incorporates highly spicy curry mixes, and was even mentioned in the Malay book Hikayat Amir Hamzah, written in Jawi Malay script in the 1500s.
By coincidence ancient Malay and Javanese vocabulary includes the now-archaic word kari or kahari meaning the ‘remaining, balance, leftover’ and may have reinforced the curry dish name where any leftover spices and remaining fresh ingredients from the previous cooking can be thrown into the kuali for the next meal, as immortalised in the pantun above.
In Malaysia, some fairly unique-tasting curry dishes abound that deserve mention, besides the entirely curry-based nasi kandar and its specialty kari kepala ikan or fish-head curry. Yummy. Among the more unique recipes are roti jala (lace-like pancake) which goes superbly with kari or bamia ayam , where this chicken curry today even accompanies Malaysia's famed nasi lemak or coconut milk rice.
There are also Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and even Japanese versions of oriental curry (guess what the popular karē raisu is?). These days the long-popular curry dishes in Britain such as vindaloo and tikka have almost become the national cuisine of the UK, where sales and servings pretty much match the more sedate British classics such as fish and chips.
Why is curry so popular? It is number one, tasty. It is also diverse and not boring. Some studies say, and some people swear it leads to craving. Craving for spicier, more pungent, more piquant stabs on the taste buds. Finallly, yes, curry is an aphrodisiac. Enough said.