For people from many different cultures, comfort food comes in the form of curry—a saucy, gravy-like concoction usually eaten over rice or with a wrap. Savory curries can be found in culinary cultures from South and Southeast Asia to Japan and the Caribbean.
“Curry has many meanings, actually,” says Colleen Taylor Sen, who wrote “Curry: A Global History.” “I think the most basic meaning is that it’s any dish with a gravy that uses Indian spices.”
Sen analyzed a number of different curry powders and found that one of the only constants in each was the presence of the spice turmeric. She says a few decades ago curry was considered an unpopular term with South Asians and has only recently become a commonly used word.
Not all curries are spicy. Chili peppers were, after all, a New World food brought to India by British colonists.
“Chilies didn’t reach India until the late 16th century,” Culinary historian Linda Pelaccio (pictured at right) says. Pelaccio is the host of the radio show "A Taste of the Past" on the Heritage Radio Network.
When the British brought Indian indentured servants to their Caribbean colonies, Indians brought their food with them. As a result, Caribbean curries are similar to Indian ones. Curries are also popular in Japan, so much so that the dish can be purchased from many vending machines.
“[Curry] was actually introduced by the British in the port of Yokohama in the 1860s,” says Sen.
She notes that the curry dish in Japan is good, but unsightly (looking something like a yellow-brown puddle), especially when compared to the elegantly presented food most often associated with Japanese cuisine.
Curry also plays a role in the history of South Africa. Bunny chows, which consist of a hollow loaf of bread filled with curry (check one out on the left), can be found throughout South Africa, and especially in the South Asian enclave of Durban.
“It was something that was developed under apartheid, where blacks weren’t allowed to go into the restaurants,” explains Sen. “The Indian restaurant owners would put this curry in this bread and then pass it out the back door. And now it’s become almost a symbol of South Africa as a melting pot.”
Try two of Sen's recipes for curry below. The first is for her easy-to-assemble "Thai Mussamen Beef Curry," and the second is for an elaborate "Classical Chicken Curry."
Thai Mussamun Beef Curry
- 1 pound [450 gm] stewing beef, cut into cubes
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoon Mussamun curry paste (purchased)
- 2 medium potatoes, cut into one-inch cubes
- 1 onion, cut into four pieces
- 1 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce, to taste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1-5 chopped red chili peppers, to taste
- ½ cup roasted peanuts
Heat the oil in a heavy pot or wok and sauté the curry paste until it bubbles. Add all the other ingredients except the peanuts, stir well, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until the meat is tender. Sprinkle with the peanuts and serve with white rice.
A Classical Chicken Curry
(From “Culinary Jottings from Madras,” 1878)
Cut a small chicken into pieces and dredge with a little flour. Make a cup of stock with the trimmings and bones, a sliced onion, carrot, pepper corns, celery, salt and sugar and another cup of coconut or almond milk.
In a stew pan, sauté six shallots or two small white onions cut into rings and a clove of finely minced garlic in two ounces of good quality tinned butter until yellow brown. Add a heaping tablespoon of the stock curry powder and one of the paste, or, if the latter is not available, two tablespoons of the powder. Cook for a minute or two, adding slowly a wineglassful of the coconut milk and then the broth. Simmer for a quarter of an hour to create a rich, thick, curry sauce. Keep the sauce warm while you prepare the chicken.
In a frying pan, fry a minced shallot in an ounce of butter or clarified beef suet for a couple of minutes, then lightly fry the chicken pieces. As soon as they are lightly colored, place them in the gravy in the stew pan, marinating for at least half an hour. Then slowly simmer the mixture over a low fire, adding stock or water if needed to cover the chicken.
During this period, the bay leaf, chutney, and sweet acid should be added. If the paste was not added previously, pounded almond and coconut are now added with a little spice and grated green ginger. The curry should be tasted and more acid or sweet added if needed. As soon as the pieces are tender, a coffee cupful of coconut milk should be added and stirred for three minutes. If a dry curry is needed, the curry is simmered longer without the lid, but continually stirred so that the meat doesn’t stick on the bottom.
Remove the seeds and juice from two or three tomatoes, chop them with a quarter of their bulk of white onion, and season the mixture with salt, two finely chopped green chilies, a bit of chopped celery, a pinch of black pepper, and a tea spoon of vinegar (preferably anchovy vinegar if available).