Is it a spice? Is it a dish? Curry means many things to many people around the world.
Curry pops up so frequently on menus all over the world that it’s easy to take it for granted. It’s also easy to be a little confused, since the word is used to describe very different sauces, stews and spice blends, some with meat or shellfish and others purely vegetarian. Curry has become a catchall that encompasses many styles, flavors and textures and names in a wide range of countries: for example, it is if known as cari in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
You can spot many mouth-watering variations in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, but curry is most often associated with India, and for decades the term was used as shorthand for Indian food in Britain. The word itself spread around the world in the 19th century, when under British colonial rule the Tamil word kari was anglicized into curry to describe a powder blending such spices as turmeric, cumin, ginger, coriander and chili, as well as the food made with it. Imported to Great Britain, where it was often adapted to local tastes (or more: chicken tikka masala is widely thought to have been invented in Britain, not India), curry became an integral part of British food culture.
The roads to curry usually lead to India
Curries are a staple of the many diverse regional traditions and distinct flavors of Indian cuisines. Creamy or drier, spicy or mild, the dishes come in so many varieties that you are sure to find one to your taste, even if you think you don’t like curry. The southwestern state of Goa, for example, incorporates culinary influences from Portuguese traders and its emblematic curry features fresh fish in a spicy red sauce and the very popular and spicy vindaloo. In Chennai, you can sample a thin, crepe-like dosa with curried potatoes, or sambar, which comes in many varieties but most classically features tamarind. Across the country, dishes in the curry family including Channa Masala, Chicken Korma and tomato-based Rojan Jost most often come with rice or naan (bread), all helpful to sop up the fragrant gravy.
Thailand: the other curry epicenter
In Southeast Asia, Thailand is usually singled out for its rich curry tradition — look for kaeng on the menu. Coconut milk is frequently used in the complex paste used in the base, in which you can also find ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir limes, cumin seeds and shrimp paste (vegetarians should make sure to check if the last was used in the paste, even if the curry is described as meat-free).
While curry is commonly associated with the color yellow (because popular blends feature turmeric), Thai versions can also be a rich red, like panang curry, which incorporates peanuts, or a vibrant green resulting from the presence of green chilies, cilantro or basil.
Massaman is a yellow, rich aromatic curry that originated in the south, near the border with Malaysia, and it bears the influence of the local Muslim population. That particular style has become an international favorite, possibly because it is slightly sweet and milder than some of its fiery brethren.
Speaking of Malaysia: be sure to try rendang, a rich and fragrant curry which is wildly popular and whose best-known version is made with beef slow-braised in coconut milk and aromatic spices including kerisik (grated toasted coconut) and kaffir lime until it is fork-tender.
Traveling eastward, you will find that Japan has developed a distinctive curry of its own, called karē. It tends to be a little runnier, less spicy and of a darker hue than the versions found in India and Thailand. Karē can come with noodles but is usually served over rice, the rich sauce lapping at the sides of the plate — you might need a spoon to get every last drop.
Indian immigrants were influential in exporting curry and helping new local variations. One of the most popular dishes in South Africa, for instance, is Durban curry, a very spicy concoction powered by garam masala, cayenne pepper and tomatoes. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out piece of bread, resulting in a specialty called a bunny chow.
You can also find terrific curry in the Caribbean, most notably in Trinidad and Tobago. There, curry powder is a staple used to brighten up — literally, since the Caribbean version of curry seasoning tends to include turmeric — soups and stews. Just add a refreshing cup of hibiscus tea to complete the experience.
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