Surely, many of our readers have already tried at least one dish prepared with this golden mix of spices, whether it was a recipe from India, Vietnam, Japan, or even Germany or England. And more than one must be wondering, how is it that a simple spice blend became part of the cuisine of so many different countries? Answer: it’s not so simple in the end, as curry does not refer to just one thing.
Curry is the anglicized version of the southern Indian Tamil word kari, meaning sauce, introduced to the West by Portuguese traders. Another possible origin that has been proposed as an etymology is related to the name of the container in which this type of stew is served: kadahi or karahi.
From the beginning, curry was a word used to refer in a very general way to the particularly spicy dishes of this region. However, it was not until 1747 that the word curry became established in the UK to specifically define the mixture of cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, pepper and bay leaf. Curry became very popular in Britain, and eventually in other European countries, thus becoming an exotic gift for middle-class newlyweds.
The best known combination of spices in India to prepare curry is known as Garam Masala, which literally translates to ‘hot spice’, but which is also used in some Bengali desserts such as cookies or small cakes.
English curry stews are mixed with flour and butter to thicken them, and can be slightly sweetened with apple. It was this version that arrived to Japan through the British maritime traders of the Meiji era, which also brought to Japan the Gregorian calendar as well as opened many trade routes. Many years later, it would be the chef, Rash Behari, who would bring the authentic Indian curry style to the island nation in 1915. However, the gastronomic revolution for the Land of the Rising Sun came with the lifting of the ban on beef, whose consumption was restricted, in part due to the geographical limitations of the island for raising cattle as well as Emperor Meiji’s strong attachment to Shinto-Buddhist dogma. In pursuit of globalization, and in moving towards a ‘more European lifestyle’, the monarch publicly ate a beef stew in 1872, thus ending the ban on the meat and changing the island’s diet forever.
The Japanese Version
Japanese curry, also known as Kare Raisu, became popular as a street food after the devastating earthquake of 1923, as many street stalls offered this food to volunteers and rescuers. To this day, it is a very popular meal that is easily found in the center of the capital, accompanied by tonkatsu, or breaded pork cutlet and rice.
Today, curry is cherished throughout the world, not only because of the complexity of its flavors and preparations, but also for its antiquity and its fascinating and somewhat tangled history.