The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines ‘curry’ as a food, dish, or sauce in Indian cuisine seasoned with a mixture of pungent spices, or a food or dish seasoned with curry powder (a mixture of spices that combines ingredients like coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chilies). This is another product of the British interaction with South Asian cultures in the colonial period. The British merchants, soldiers and bureaucrats stationed in India developed a love for Indian cuisine (modified to suit their European palates).
From the subcontinent, curry traveled to England. What followed was nothing less than a culinary revolution. British food would no longer be the same. But where did the word actually originate? The clues lie in South India, where enterprising Europeans (Portuguese, French, British, Dutch and Danish) were on the lookout for commodities to export back home. That is when they ran into what was a South Indian staple. This is how BBC Food’s Anna Louis Taylor describes the phenomenon in ‘Curry: Where did it come from?’:
The UK has adopted curry as a “national dish”, with more than 9,000 Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and the creation of British-Asian dishes such as chicken tikka masala and balti, says the National Curry Week website. It says about 23 million people eat curry regularly. Since its inception, the word curry has “changed its meaning and become ubiquitous as a menu word”, says Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food.
Once it just meant Indian food, but “it now denotes various kinds of dish in numerous different parts of the world, but all are savoury and all are spiced,” it reads. An English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, was published in the 1390s, and all hot food was called “cury” from the French word cuire, meaning to cook. Alan Davidson writes however that curry comes from the Tamil word kari, or spiced sauce, which was originally a thin, soup-like, spiced dressing served in southern India, amongst many other stew-like dressings for meat and vegetables. Europeans took it to mean any one of their thin dressings, and the Portuguese are credited with popularising it after they colonised parts of India – there is a recipe for kari in a 17th Century Portuguese cookery book.
“The Portuguese discovered India, and Britain followed, but Britain is the country that actually brought spice to the whole world,” explains chef Cyrus Todiwala from BBC Two’s The Incredible Spice Men. The first curry recipe in English was published by Hannah Glasse in 1747. To Make a Currey the India Way, was a stew of chicken or rabbits, with a spoonful of rice and several spices – the portions being the reverse of what is served today. “What had been an Indian sauce to go with rice, became an English stew with a little rice in it,” according to Alan Davidson.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary points towards the Tamil word kaṟi (or a cognate word in a Dravidian language) as the ultimate source. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the usage goes back to the 1680s and derives from the Tamil word for ‘sauce, relish used for rice’. Today, curry rules British taste buds and has expanded to include Kashmiri, Punjabi, Bengali and Goan cuisine.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed (1759–1851). The portrait is preserved in the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and dates back to 1810. It is attributed to Thomas Mann Baynes (1794–1876), an English artist and lithographer famed for his drawings and watercolors. Dean Mahomed, hailing from the region of Bihar (in eastern India), worked for the British East India Company’s Army. In 1810, he moved to Britain and set up the Hindoostane Coffee House. An establishment in London providing Indian food and hookah (a pipe used for smoking tobacco), it did not survive for long. Nevertheless, it laid the foundations for the curry house revolution that would sweep all of Britain.