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The Long and Curious History of Curry

“Curry” has become the unofficial cuisine of England, which has boosted that country’s culinary reputation considerably. It was once considered exotic, but shouldn’t have been, since it is eaten around the world and even appeared in an American cookbook as far back as 1824. In fact, the only place that doesn’t have a curry tradition is 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.

From those early traders, the Indian dishes we call curry followed the spread of imperialism. Read about how curry took over the world at the A.V. Club.  

(Image credit:  Nick Wanserski)

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