The Spice of Life: A Brief History of Curry

We all know what curry is, don’t we? In modern England we use the term to describe almost any Indian dish that comes in a sauce – as opposed to dry dishes such as chicken tikka or shashlik. Whilst not a word used frequently outside of this fair isle, most people would recognise it as referring to a dish of meat, fish or vegetables in some kind of spiced sauce or broth.

Britain loves curry and it has supplanted the traditional fish and chips and been adopted as our national dish. It is estimated that around 23 million Brits regularly visit one of the approximately 10,000 Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi restaurants that dot the UK and tuck into to delicious servings of rogan josh, korma or vindaloo. British-Asian cooking has also spawned its own unique dishes such as chicken tikka masala and Balti that have become enormously popular.

The popularity of Indian food is undeniable, but it’s the word “curry” that’s of interest to us today. So, let’s have a backwards gaze through the annals of time and see if we cannot sniff out the origins of this most unspecific of terms.

Indian Origins

It seems logical that we must have originally adapted the word from an Indian one – after all, India is where we got the food from.

There is a Tamil word ‘kari’ which means ‘spiced sauce,’ and it is from this word that many believe that the English word ‘curry’ sprang. A Dutch traveller in 1598 refers to a dish called ‘Carriel’ in his travelling accounts whilst in the region.

Camellia Panjabi, states in her book ’50 Great Curries of India,’ that the word simply means ‘gravy’ in today’s language. Although it is worth noting that the English first landed in the north of India in 1608, where they use the word ‘khadi’ to describe a gravy based dish.

Another theory is that the term comes from the word ‘karahi’ which is a traditional cooking dish in India, similar to a wok. Also ‘Turkuri’ which refers to a seasonal stew or sauce.

So, whilst individual opinions on the exact word that curry is derived from vary, it seems to be largely agreed on that the word is of Indian origin and was adopted during the time of the British Raj.

However, there does also seem to be considerable evidence that the word originates right here on our own fair isle.

British Origins

Whilst Richard I was at on the throne of England, the country went through something of a revolution in cooking. The chefs in well-off houses began using spices to liven up otherwise bland English dishes. Ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, galingale, cubebs, coriander, cumin, cardamom and aniseed rapidly became staples of English kitchens. This resulted in the creation of flavoursome and highly spiced dishes similar to those you would expect to find in countries such as India.

When Richard’s successor ascended to the throne (1377-1399) England got its first ever real cookery book. The book was commissioned by Richard II himself in 1390 and he employed the services of around 200 cooks to produce the 196 recipies contained within. The book was titled ‘The Forme of Cury,’ with ‘cury’ being an Old English word for cooking.

Rather than being of Indian origin, ‘cury’ was derived from the French word ‘cuire,’ meaning to cook, boil or grill, - and is also where we get the word ‘cuisine’ from.

This means that ‘cury’ was already part of the English language two centuries before we arrived in India. The word had been used in many books and other writings in that time and was firmly part of the lexicon, and the use of exotic spices and herbs was a well-established norm of English cooking by that point.

In fact, the sorts of spices used in curries were first brought to these shores during the Roman conquests of 40AD. So, it does not seem that we can lay the origins of neither the word nor the ingredients at the foot of India.

It seems likely therefore that the collection of dishes that we now refer to as curry is an amalgamation of sorts. The style of cooking and the term were clearly present in this country long before we ever set foot in India and were very popular even back them. However, we clearly developed a taste for the specific dishes that were being produced in India when we did eventually reach their shores.

This helps to explain why we now use the term to describe Indian food. The food would have been very similar to the spiced dishes that were already being created in England, so it stands to reason that we would have used the term to describe them. Then, over time, the English style dishes would have faded from the public consciousness as the Indian versions gained in popularity.

So, there you have a brief look at the origins of curry. Which side do you come down on for the origins of the word? Also feel free to let us know your favourite Indian treat.

Have fun.