Some of you have asked me about how I developed a liking for Curry? So… I have decided to dig a little deeper into the question to see what makes curry so special and so endearing of a meal. For starters, it’s important to understand that there is not one curry but limitless variations of curries which vary from region to region and household to household across the globe. Whether in diverse Indian or Pakistani provinces, in Southeast Asia, eastern Asia, parts of Africa, the Caribbean: all of these broadly defined regions lay claim to some of the most intensely flavorful foods out there.
While it is rather difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of these dishes, food historians believe that curry or curries originated in the territory known today as India. According to Palak Patel, chef and writer at the Institute of culinary education, “it’s also believed that the word curry comes from a word from the South Indian state of Tamil (kari) and means to blacken with spices". In fact, over centuries, the development of curried foods has resulted from a combination of factors including: colonization by the Portuguese (who introduced chilies), the French and British empires, trade, and the exodus of people and cultures from these regions throughout the globe, often in the form of indentured servitude for then European companies. It’s really fascinating to even attempt to describe the process of how “curry” has spread throughout the globe. One could spend a lifetime trying to answer this question, however, like all of the dishes I cook, I try to bring some history to the table.
Shifting from this brief historical perspective I would like to break down some of the wonderful qualities of curries that make them so enticing, fun to eat, and fun to cook. Firstly, they are very profound in flavor and aroma. Whether one is cooking or eating a proper curry there is a range and evolution to the flavors in every bite. Step by step one builds more and more flavor, from the whole spices cooked in oil, the onions, ginger, garlic, masalas (spice mixtures), the tomatoes, herbs, and vegetables or meats braised in the rich sauces….the aromas fill the air in such a way that no other foods do. Secondly, curries are usually very colorful (or at least the ingredients that go into them). Turmeric, chilies, onions, coriander, cumin, chili powder (and the list goes on) all have vibrant coloration before and after being cooked. Thirdly, curries are also texturally interesting (at least the ones I enjoy). A little cumin seed popping here, a mustard seed there, a clove here… all cooked down with a variety of vegetables and or meats (on the bone of course). It’s safe to say that from the start to finish, curries offer a multi-sensorial experience to both chef and guest.
Curries, thus, are creative dishes that take time to make and to make well. It’s unfortunate that many have not experienced a great curry. In contrast to my experience, I feel that many people have gotten the “short end of the stick” when it comes to curry and as I understand it, it is because of three main reasons. The first is, there are some that recognize curry exclusively as the mild standardized curry powder like the one found in US supermarkets. This generic “curry” powder is basically a whole bunch of turmeric powder with a touch of cumin and salt. When used as the main seasoning it produces a rather bland and overly musky flavor. The second reason someone may never have experienced a tasty curry is because the ones they have had were simply too spicy. Not all curries have to make you beg for a giant glass of milk, in fact, chilies are not only for making these dishes hot, but they are critical in developing flavor. Once I discovered the more subtle uses of chili peppers in tandem with all of the aromatics and spices I began to realize how essential they are in building flavor (this took some time to realize). Finally, I feel that many have not experienced a great curry because they went to a restaurant that took too many shortcuts in preparing it. In reality, restaurants must reduce the costs of ingredients (amount used) and the labor involved in a dish, some, however, take it too far. If all one gets is a glorified penne vodka sauce with too much cayenne pepper, then he or she is truly missing out. This is why before anything else one should try a home-cooked version first. Trust me it’s a whole different story.
What role, then, do I play in all of this? While my family heritage and lineage is far from the said origins of these dishes, I find it very important to honor different cuisines and cultures in my cooking. Thus, I see my role as someone who offers the best of both worlds. On the one hand I need to be efficient and my meals profitable, on the other hand, I simply refuse to cut any corners when it comes to our Curry of the Week. I also have to make sure that the curries I make are vegan (no ghee, cream, butter, or meat) and I also try to make sure that they fit in with the other healthy vegan options we offer. I am sometimes tempted to add more heat and some more oil, however, I must always consider client tastes and dietary restrictions. As you can see there is a lot at play, nonetheless, I continue to do my best to offer a solid stew/curry with a side of rice. One day I would love to travel directly to different Asian destinations to fully indulge in and appreciate these regional dishes which have deeply impacted my cooking and love for food.