What Exactly Is “Curry?”

July 8, 2013 | Other Goodies

A common misconception by Western culture is that curry is merely “curry powder,” like found in the spice section of the supermarket, a single standardized spice to enhance the flavor, color, and aroma of a dish.  Another misconception is that curry is a term relating to a specific type of dish, usually associated with Indian cuisine, and usually being yellow in color with a typical pungent aroma and sweet flavor.  But these misconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.

The commercially prepared curry powder we have come to know today is thought to have originated in India during the 18th century from spice market merchants selling their curry spice mixture to members of the British Colonial government and army, who, in turn, brought the spice mixture back home to Britain; thus, giving the British people exposure to only one mixture of curry spices.   Indian cuisine was then associated with this singular curry spice mixture, and Indians general heavy usage of various curries in their cooking overall, so the British deemed all Indian dishes as “curry.”  So to the defense of Western culture, the British are somewhat responsible for this broad misconception of curry.

Contrary to this Western culture belief, curry is actually a complex blend of spices (and sometimes with the addition of herbs) which usually includes fresh or dried chilies.  Even though the types of ingredients in curries range from region to region (and country to country) due to varying climates, cultural traditions, and religious practices, there are some commonly used ingredients in curries: turmeric, coriander, cumin, red pepper, and fenugreek.  Some other ingredients found in different types of curries are ginger, garlic, mustard seed, cardamom (black or green), and clove.  The curry spices can be used whole or ground, and toasted or raw; and can be incorporated during cooking which produces different results.  Curries can contain as few as five or six spices, and in some cases even up to thirty; some curries are quite hot and spicy, and others much milder, depending on the desired end result.

There are typically two styles of curry dishes, “wet” or “dry.”  Dry curries usually use very little cooking liquids, which mostly evaporate, leaving the main ingredients evenly coated with the curry spice mixture as somewhat of a paste; with the origin of the word curry coming from the Tamil name “kari,” which means “sauce,” the dry curry dishes are not actually in fact all the way dried out; there is some moisture left.  Wet curries usually have some kind of sauce which is based on various types of liquids: stock, yogurt, coconut milk, and even a legume puree (dhal).  It is not rare to see a dry curry and a wet curry served side by side.  As different curries are used for many dishes, the dishes are often not referred to as “a curry” (especially in India) in actuality, dishes utilizing curries are named with reference to the ingredients, spicing, and cooking methods.  Often in Indian cuisine, dishes prepared with curries are referred to as masala.

As there are a wide range of curry dishes, there are also a wide variety of foods cooked with curry spice mixtures.  Meat, poultry, shellfish, fish, and even eggs, are often used with curry, and sometimes these ingredients are utilized with vegetables; vegetables are often used without meats to create delectable vegetarian dishes.  It is very common for curry dishes to be served with or over rice, and to be served family-style.

The other misconception by Western culture that curries are a primarily Indian cuisine trait is also incorrect.  Outside of India, the variations of curries range greatly from countries like Japan, China, Thailand, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Africa, and even the Caribbean.

In Thailand, for example, curry is used in the form of a paste (the term is also interchangeable to refer to the paste itself); the dishes it is used in can take on the descriptions of “red,” “green,” or “yellow” curries, and often served as a soup accompanied by a bowl of rice.  Thai curry dishes are often made from this paste, with the addition of coconut milk (or water), and a main component like meat, vegetables, or fruit.  These curry dishes are unique in that they utilize many fresh aromatics and fresh herbs in lieu of a mix of spices.  Some of the typical ingredients in Thai curry include: shrimp paste, chilies, onions or shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and coriander.  Sometimes spices like turmeric, pepper, cardamom pods, and cumin are also added to the curry paste.  The Thai people refer to these dishes as “Thai curries,” also known as “kaeng.”

Curry has also been attributed to some health benefits; it has been used in experimental cancer therapies, and cumin has been used to treat Parkinson’s. (Perasso, 2012)  It has also been known to help ease the swelling in joints, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, boost immunity, ease digestion, burn fat, help manage asthma, and improve the appearance of skin (when turmeric and cinnamon are present, as they are both rich in antioxidants). (Unknown, 2010)

Throughout the world, “curry” is known as many different things, from cooking methods, to ingredients used.  Ranging in different numbers of diverse ingredients from many varied countries and regions, most of the Eastern world has many versions of a curry dish.  With such a broad range of curries and curry dishes available, one can enjoy the many different tastes and creativity in spice, herb, and aromatic selections, with some of the ingredients being beneficial for health as well.


Perasso, Eva. Curry From A to Z: 26 Things You Didn’t Know About Curry. Web blog

entry. Fine Dining Lovers. 13 April 2012. Accessed 25 February 2013. Web.

Unknown. 8 Health Benefits of Curry. Web blog entry. 3 Fat Chicks on a Diet!. 24

August 2012. Accessed 25 February 2013. Web.

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