What We Know As "Curry" Has A Long And Curious History

In 1941, Jane Holt, a writer for The New York Times, walked into one of Manhattan's smattering of Indian restaurants, stuck her face over a simmering pot, and breathed in the scented steam rising from its surface. In her column, "The News Of Food," she wrote about the "rare Oriental ragout that is called curry" she experienced there, prepared in a variety of styles she described—quite spuriously—as "the true foods of occult India."

In truth, the "Oriental ragout" she tasted wasn't especially rare, nor did it resemble the "true foods" of any particular place. By then, the word "curry," in one form or another, had already been assimilated into the cultures of Fiji, Japan, and Singapore; made its way to South Africa, Jamaica and Guyana; and even popped up in Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia (see: currywurst and curried herring). Even Americans had been eating it for a century, as the first American cookbook, 1824's The Virginia Housewife, featured a curry recipe. James Beard ate curry at Delmonico's. Cecily Brownstone lobbied for it to be included it in The Joy Of Cooking. In fact, one of the only places in the world that didn't have a dish called curry was, curiously enough, India.

That word "curry," now as then, has a meaning as vague and inclusive as its ingredients. It can mean any stew made with "Indian" spices, as well as the yellow spice powder (usually a mixture of turmeric, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek) used in raisin-studded chicken salads. It's not difficult to trace the spread of curry—it traveled by sea, following traders and slavers and laborers, the ancient vectors of colony and conquest—but the word itself is an altogether different beast, a bastard with many potential parents and no clear pedigree.

The Portuguese first came to India's palm-toothed southern shores in 1498, in search of cardamom, cloves, and black pepper, each among the world's most valuable commodities. Lacking a word to describe the spicy, coconut-thickened stews they found there, they went ahead and made one up: carel, taken from the Tamil word kari.

The meaning and origin of that Tamil word is surprisingly opaque. Dr. Lizzie Collingham, author of the book Curry: A Tale Of Cooks And Conquerors, says it meant something akin to "biting." Colleen Taylor Sen, food historian and author of the book Curry: A Global History, gives the more common etymology of "spiced sauce." Because Tamil has two distinct "r" sounds, there are actually two words that might have yielded carel, though the difference between them is virtually indistinguishable to a non-native speaker. One means "to blacken" (as in "to grill") or "to season"; the other comes from the verb "to bite" and can be used as a noun for meat or vegetables. But both are food words, so the Portuguese—with the colonizer's talent for generalization—coined a catchall for anything the natives ate.

The British East India Company was incorporated on the last day of 1600, and within a century it had wrested mercantile dominance from the Portuguese. It also took the word carel, which their clumsy Anglo-Saxon tongues turned to "curry." They used it to describe the wide range of spiced stews prepared by the native cooks, who politely adjusted their complex cuisine for the meeker palates of their invaders.

While the Portuguese tended to put down roots, British bureaucrats came and went as they pleased over the centuries. Back home, they liked to show off their colonial bona fides by serving "Indian" curries at their tables. By the mid-19th century, you couldn't find a British cookbook without a curry recipe, or a chemist's shop that didn't carry curry powder. In her 1861 book Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton included a recipe that called for onions, apples, stock, and curry powder stewed with meat, thickened with a roux, and finished with a mortifying splash of cream. Curry had officially become British.

Back in India, British companies were already manufacturing curry powders with names like "The Empress" and selling them not just to London housewives, but to a captive audience of colonial subjects. Those same subjects became Britain's solution to the labor shortage that was brought about by the abolition of slavery in 1833. Over the next eight decades, the British sent 1.5 million Indians to work as indentured laborers on cane and rubber plantations in Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, and the Caribbean. They were promised a nominal salary, along with rations of rice, lentils, and curry powder.

Both the demand and cost for spices in Europe had dropped precipitously, but the British, wily as ever, had started trading something even more valuable: opium. To protect their back route into China, where the opium trade had been outlawed, the British established their Straits Settlements at Penang, Malacca, and Singapore between 1789 and 1867. They came with drugs to smuggle—and curry powder to cook.

Proving every bit as addictive, curry spread fast. In the kitchens of Hong Kong—where the word curry became gah-lay in Cantonese—cooks added curry powder to a stir-fried vermicelli dish and named it after Singapore. Thailand had its own indigenous curry dishes, called kaeng, but British curry powder gave them what the West now knows as yellow curry, rendered in Thai as kaeng kari (literally "curry curry"), and flavored with Indian ingredients like turmeric, cumin, and coriander. Those spices weren't exactly new; Indian traders brought them to the region, along with Hinduism and Buddhism, more than 1,000 years before. But here the word "curry" came in, along with the powder.

The British continued to bring curry powder with them wherever they went, with their next stop being Japan. In 1868, the Meiji Emperor replaced the feudal shogun era, and the renewal of open trade after more than 200 years instigated a craze for Western dishes. Ironically, given its purportedly "Oriental" provenance, curry was among them.

The popularity of kare raisu (a phonetic approximation from curry rice) grew with the military. Under the Meiji government, the navy instituted reforms aimed at bulking up their soldiers with regimented, high-protein diets. Curries (sweetened, like Mrs. Beeton's, with apples) did a good job of disguising bland or tough meats. Kare raisu became a staple of navy and army canteens and played its own small role in transforming Japan into a global military power. In the wake of World War II, the chastened Japanese government started pressuring former imperial subjects to repatriate. Some took kare raisu back home to North Korea, where packets of curry paste sent over from relatives who'd stayed back in Japan became a kind of currency in lean times. Kare thus became the center of a peculiar new spice trade in the world's most isolated country.

Inevitably, the word curry also made its way back home. In India, curry's not so much a flavor, or an ingredient, or a generic term for spice mixes. (That's masala.) Instead, it turns up on English-language menus to indicate gravy-based—or wet—dishes. With a strange kind of symmetry, "curry" has even found its way into India's lexicon. The Hindi word for the South Indian ingredient known as karuvepillai (literally, "leaf of the black neem tree") is currypatta, or curry leaf. Vegetal and aromatic, it tastes nothing like curry powder.

Even that type of curry powder makes the occasional appearance on an Indian menu. It's served there in urban coffee shops with continental pretensions, or in the old British-built country clubs patronized by the Anglophone rich, where it's mixed with chicken and mayo and squeezed between bland slices of spongy bread. Invented in Britain in 1953—a few short years after India won its independence—that sandwich commemorated the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II's reign and marked the end of Britain's colonial heyday. It's called Coronation Chicken: a rare occidental ragout, the true food of nowhere.