The Chile Cuisine of India, Part 2

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By Dave DeWitt 

An Introduction to Curries

Indian Chile Vendors, ca. 1880




Quick Curry Powder (Bafat)

Indian Minced Meat Curry (Keema Bafat)

Pork Curry Gurkha-Style

Moghlai Chicken Curry (Nimbu Masala Murgh)


  Indian Chile Vendors, ca. 1880

The word curry refers to both a spice mixture and a style of cooking. The spice mixture usually contains chile peppers in the form of a hot powder along with up to thirty other spices and herbs. The cooking style is essential stewing meats, seafood, poultry, and/or vegetables in the spice mixture.

A Brief History of Curry

One of the most intriguing theories about the ancestry of curry was advanced by Captain Basil Hall, a traveler in India, Ceylon, and Borneo. “It will surprise most people–old Indians inclusive–” he wrote in 1930, “to learn that the dish we call curry is not of India, nor, indeed, of Asiatic origin at all. There is reason to believe that curries were first introduced into India by the Portuguese.” Hall reasoned that since the Portuguese had introduced chile peppers into India, and since hot peppers are a primary ingredient of curry, ergo, they must have introduced curries as well.

Hall was dead wrong, of course. Curry-like spice mixtures date back to at least 4,000 B.C. In excavations of the ancient cities of Harpatta and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan, grinding stones were found that contained traces of mustard seed, cumin, saffron, fennel, and tamarind. Since all of these spices appear in curries, it is not unreasonable to assume that the ancient Indus Valley people were cooking with curry spices 6,000 years ago–although no recipes survive.

Mustard Seed


Mustard seed, used in curries all over India.


“Many people consider them [inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro, called the Harappa Culture] the world’s first gourmets and creative cooks,” wrote Willam Laas in Cuisines of the Western World. “Their achievements may be measured by the fact that their seasonings were adopted by all who came after them.”

One of the first written mentions of curry-style cookery is attributed to Athenaeus, a Greek miscellanist who lived about A.D. 200. In his Deiponosophistai, “The Gastronomers,” a fascinating survey of classical food and dining habits, he quotes Megasthenes, the third century B.C. author of Indica: “Among the Indians at a banquet a table is set before each individual…and on the table is placed a golden dish, in which they first throw boiled rice…and then they add many sorts of meat dressed after the Indian fashion.”

“The Indian fashion,” as mentioned by Athenaeus, has sparked most of the curry controversies because some writers and cooks believe that the “Indian fashion” of curry has been stolen and ruined by the rest of the world, especially by the English. Other writers think that notion is nonsense, and they believe that cookery continues to evolve as the world shrinks. In fact, there are multitudinous definitions and beliefs about curry, and rarely do two writers agree on precisely what curry is.

“Curry in its twentieth century manifestation–a meat or occasionally vegetable stew flavoured with commercial curry powder–is essentially a British dish,” wrote John Ayto, author of The Glutton’s Glossary. He was taking the oversimplified stance that all curries are made with commercial curry powder, which simply is not true, despite a plethora of commercial curry powders and other products.

M.F.K. Fisher, the famous gastronome, disagreed with the curry-powder-stew concept, believing the preparation of curries to be a high art: “Books about curries, for instance,” she wrote, “are published continually, with the success of a well-ticking clock. Special restaurants all over the world serve nothing but curries. Spice merchants grow rich on making their regional and private blends of curry powder. In other words, reputations can and do depend upon the authenticity of the recipe first and then of the powder that goes with the sauce, the skill with which the sauce is made, and in many cases the atmosphere in which the whole is served.”

Some curry lovers carry things too far. “The word curry is magic,” gushed William Kaufman in his book, The Art of India’s Cookery. “Its mention conjures up for us the romance and mystery of the far-off land of the Taj Mahal. The best way to create the Indian atmosphere is to perfume your house with curries.”

His comment may have some truth, but the worship of curry irritates famed Indian chef and author Madhur Jaffrey, who wrote in her book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking: “To me the word ‘curry’ is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s. If ‘curry’ is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then ‘curry powder’ attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself.”

Jaffrey may call the word curry “degrading,” but actually, it is not meant to be insulting. The term “curry” reflects the evolution of language, and the need to designate, in English, dishes that were based on various spice mixtures. Indeed, “curry” has come to mean, in English, different spice mixtures that are used in a similar manner in countries throughout the world. “Curry,” explains Yohanni Jones, author of Dishes from Indonesia, “is a word frequently used by foreigners to describe Indonesian dishes cooked with coconut milk.” Santha Rama Rau, author of the Time-Life book on Indian cooking, says that the “proper sense” of the word ‘curry’ is “a highly seasoned stew with plenty of sauce.”

There is even controversy over the etymology of the word “curry.” Most sources attribute it to a British colonial corruption of the Tamil (South Indian) word kari, meaning sauce. Indian food expert Julie Sahni notes that the word kari is also a shortened version of kari-pulia, or kari leaves, meaning the leaves of the curry plant, Murraya koenigii, a common ingredient in Indian curry blends.

But other writers disagree with the kari origin of curry. Dharam Jit Singh, author of Classic Cooking from India, wrote that “Curry is a word that comes from the Hindustani: turcarri. In the colloquial it is shortened to ‘turri,’ which in Anglo-Saxon usage is called ‘curry.'” William Laas, author of Cuisines of the Western World, agrees with this etymology. Other writers believe that the word is derived from karhai, a wok-like metal implement made of silvered brass in which curried dishes are cooked, or khari (sometimes, khadi), a soup made with buttermilk and chickpea flour.

Julie Sahni claims that curry is derived from curryup, an ancient Tamil word for “blackened” or “crisp-fried.” She also notes that curryi is Tamil for uncooked vegetables. She concludes: “Curry powder was thus originally the seasoning blend used for flavoring fried vegetables.”

Perhaps the most unusual theory of the origin of the word curry comes from Selat Elbis Sopmi of London’s Punjab Restaurant, who wrote in The Curry Club Magazine that some centuries ago an Irish sea captain married into a wealthy family. The captain’s gambling led to the demise of the family, which kept a large stable of racehorses. They were forced to sell the best of the horses and eat the rest. The Irishman used the word “cuirreach,” Irish for racetrack, and told everyone he had been reduced to eating cuirreach gosht, or racetrack meat. “Over the ages, this has become, through usage,” claims Sopmi, “the word as we know it, curry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary prefers the Tamil kari as the word of origin and defines curry as: “A preparation of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and used as a relish or flavouring, especially for dishes composed of or served with rice.” A secondary definition says that curry powder may be used in the cooking process.

Interestingly enough, the English were already predisposed to accept the word “curry,” regardless of its precise Indian ancestry. First, there was the influence all over Europe of Marco Polo, who, in the late thirteen century reported of the Asian origin of “ginger, galingal, spikenard, and many other kinds of spices” that were just starting to be used in the English kitchen.

Ginger Root


Ginger, used in freshly made curries.

Second, the word “cury,” with an Old French word “keurie” as its root, first appeared in English as “kewery,” meaning cookery and also the “concoction” of substances in alchemy. As early as 1390, a manuscript of the first English cookbook appeared, entitled Forme of Cury (“art of cookery”), and it was supposedly written by the master cook of King Richard II. Forme of Cury was not actually printed as a book until 1780, about thirty years after Robert Clive of the East India Company captured the fort of Arcot, west of Madras, and began the British Empire in India. Thus the first printed English cookbook was contemporaneous with the early rise of the British Raj–but that is not the only curry coincidence.



Cinnamon, a common curry ingredient.

In Forme of Cury, hot spices were considered to be, according to culinary historian L. Patrick Coyle, an “essential luxury” because of the medieval belief in their digestive qualities and their ability to mask the tastes and odors of food spoilage. “Pepper was the most highly prized,” wrote Coyle, “followed by ginger and a related root called galingal, then cubeb, a berry whose taste suggests allspice and peppercorn, and clove, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and coriander.” Given the fact that all of these spices appear in curries, it was inevitable that the English would warmly embrace Indian curries.



Peppercorns, the original
heat in curries before chiles.



As for the word “curry,” it soon had its own variants through the British Empire, including “currie,” “carrye,” “curree,” “kerry,” and “kerrie.” It was transferred to other languages, appearing as “poudre de cari” in French and “Indisches Currypulver” in German, but remaining simply as “curry” in Italian and Spanish. The word has even crept into slang, as in the American and British phrase “currying favor” (which originally meant “to please with cookery”) and the Australian “to give curry,” which means to abuse or rebuke someone.

Curry Myths

During the research for this article, four main curry myths were evident.

  • Curry Myth Number 1: Curry is a spice. This fiction continues to spread despite numerous books on spices and Indian cooking. Curry leaf (Murraya koenigii) is a single herb used in some curries, but in reality, there are dozens and dozens of herbs, spices, fruits, rhyzomes, bulbs, pulses, nuts, and other ingredients which are combined to make curries.
  • Curry Myth Number 2: All curries are the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Contrary to popular belief,” notes Sri Lankan food importer Anura Saparamadu, “there are about as many types of curries as there are spices.” And given the total number of curry ingredients, the combinations and permutations of those ingredients provide a nearly infinite variety of flavors in curries. “Even the best Indian cooks will argue endlessly over the inclusion and exclusion of particular spices and herbs,” adds Santha Rama Rau.
  • Curry Myth Number 3: Authentic curries cannot be made outside their countries of origin. Purists often say that to enjoy genuine curries, one must travel to all the regions where curry dishes are popular. Can authentic curries be made in America? The answer is a resounding yes. Virtually every exotic curry ingredient (and every one in this article) is available in the United States in Asian markets or by mail order. Besides, across the Indian subcontinent, as well as in other curry countries, cooks boldly experiment, and it is possible to get five or six variations for the same recipe. So, cooks should just use our recipes as a rough guide, and feel free to experiment. In all cases, even with a few substitutions, the recipes will be authentic–meaning, as in the dictionary, reliable and genuine.
  • Curry Myth Number 4: No self-respecting Indian cook would ever use commercial curry powder. Virtually every writer on the subject of curry or Indian food falls for this falsehood, or some variation on the theme, as if to say that all commercial curry products are bogus. Expatriate Indians in other parts of the world, such as the United States and Canada, commonly use commercial powders, pastes, oils, and sauces. And in India, as Tom Stobart, author of The Cook’s Encyclopedia, observes: “Books commonly say that Indians do not use curry powder. This may have been true in the days when even the servants had servants and the masala of fresh ginger, garlic, onion, coconut, green chile, and spices was ground on the stone freshly for each dish. But today [1980], a First World cost of servants has caught up with Third World households, and ready-ground spice mixtures are no longer beyond the pale.”

This is not to say that Indian cooks now use commercial preparations to the exclusion of homemade curries, but rather that they have now the option because of the vast number of commercial products on the market.

Julie Sahni takes a liberal view of the most basic ingredients required to make a curry: “For a spice blend to be called a curry powder, the mixture must contain three core spices: coriander, turmeric, and pepper.” Others will disagree, asking “where’s the cumin?” or any other of their favorite spices. The point here is that many spice blends not originally defined as curry powders, such as those from North Africa and the Middle East, can fit into the broad category of curries.

The Portuguese forever changed curries by introducing chile peppers, which became the principal hot spice in curries from then on. Christopher Columbus brought chile peppers and their seeds back from the New World in 1493, and they were grown mostly by monks in monasteries. Portuguese explorers carried the chiles to their ports in Africa and Goa, India shortly thereafter. Although the exact date of their introduction into India is not known, most experts believe that it was in the early 1500s.

Garcia Orta, a Portuguese chronicler, wrote in 1593: “This Capsicum or Indian pepper is diligently cultivated in castles by gardeners and also by women in their kitchens and house gardens.” Chiles became an integral part of Indian cooking and religious lore. They are believed to ward off the “evil eye,” and in many houses and offices, chiles are hung for just such a purpose. In the home, chiles are burned in the kitchen to intimidate the evil eye and protect children.

Most curry cooks recommend using only freshly ground spices; however, there are many convenient commercial curry preparations. Masalas are spice blends that usually lack turmeric. Curry powders contain turmeric (the yellower the powder, the more turmeric it contains), and a large percentage of coriander. Imported powders are generally superior to domestic ones. Curry pastes are sealed, moist blends of herbs, spices, and other ingredients such as coconut, onions, fresh chiles, and ginger. They are imported from India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Curry sauces are available either in bottles or in mixes, and are used as marinades or to make an “instant” curry gravy for meats. Curry oils are vegetable oils steeped in curry spices, and they are generally used as a condiment to add a curry flavor to prepared foods.


Quick Curry Powder (Bafat)

Contrary to popular belief, in India, curry powders have become an integral part of middle class family life. This quick curry powder, called bafat, is from the southwestern region of India. It can be used for a meat, fish, or vegetable dishes. Traditionally, the spices are sun-dried for three days and then roasted.

  • 1/3 cup coriander seeds

  • 1/4 cup cumin seeds

  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds

  • 2 tablespoons peppercorns

  • 2 tablespoons whole cloves

  • 1 tablespoons fenugreek seeds

  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom

  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

  • 2 tablespoons powdered turmeric

  • 1/4 cup freshly ground, hot chile powder, such as New Mexican

Dry the whole spices in the oven at 200 degrees for 15 minutes, taking care they do not burn. Remove them from the oven, cool, and grind them together with the ground spices in a spice mill.

Yield: About 2 cups

Heat Scale: Medium

Indian Minced Meat Curry (Keema Bafat)

This is a popular dish from the coastal region of Karnataka, India using Quick Curry Powder (bafat, see recipe, above). It is traditionally prepared with lamb, but chicken may be substituted and the cooking time reduced by 7 minutes.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter–optional)

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 6 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 1-inch piece ginger, minced

  • 1 tablespoon bafat (see recipe above)

  • 1 pound minced meat (lamb or substitute chicken)

  • Salt to taste

  • 1/4 cup cilantro or mint leaves

In a skillet, heat the oil for 1 minute, add the ghee and the onion and cook over medium heat until the onions wilt, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and ginger and fry the mixture for 1 minute. Add the bafat powder, lower the heat, and simmer for 1 minute.

Add the minced meat, mix well, and cook for 20 minutes over low heat. Sprinkle with cold water from time to time. Add the salt. Garnish with cilantro or mint leaves.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Pork Curry Gurkha-Style

Gurkhas, the sturdy soldiers from Nepal, took this curry formula wherever they went, be it Malaya or the Falkland Islands. The use of yogurt in this curry tempers the chiles. Note that this recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon cayenne powder

  • 2 pounds lean and boneless pork, cut into 1-inch cubes

  • 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced

  • 2 cups unsweetened yogurt

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

  • 1/4 cup ghee (clarified butter, or substitute vegetable oil

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder

  • 1 cup water

  • Salt to taste

  • ½ cup cilantro leaves

  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder

  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg powder

  • ½ teaspoon clove powder

  • ½ teaspoon cardamom powder

Combine the vinegar and cayenne powder and toss the meat in it. Add the yogurt and ginger and marinate the meat for about 3 hours at room temperature.

Heat the oil in a skillet over low heat for 1 minute; add the ghee, the pork with its marinade, black pepper, turmeric, water, and salt, and bring to a rapid boil. Lower the heat, cover the skillet, and simmer for 40 minutes.

Add the cilantro, cumin, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom powders, stir in well, and serve hot.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Moghlai Chicken Curry (Nimbu Masala Murgh)

The Moghlai dishes, popular across India, but particularly in Delhi and the neighboring Uttar Pradesh, owe their ancestry to sixteenth and seventeenth century Moghul rulers, Akbar and Shehjehan, who were connoisseurs of music, literature, architecture, and food. Unlike their immediate ancestors, who invaded India, and who were too busy consolidating their empire to pay much attention to cuisine, Akbar and Shehjehan recruited the best chefs in northern India, and encouraged them to create dishes that carried the influence of the ingredients of central Asia and India. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 2 large onions, chopped

  • 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled

  • 10 cloves garlic

  • 2 cups plain yogurt

  • Salt to taste

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne powder

  • 1 tablespoon cumin powder

  • 1 tablespoon coriander powder

  • 1 tablespoon commercial garam masala

  • 1 chicken, cut into serving pieces

  • 1/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil

  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds

  • 4 green chiles, such as serranos, stems removed, finely minced

  • 1/4 cup lime juice

  • 1 lime, cut into small pieces, for garnish

  • 1 large tomato, diced, for garnish

  • ½ cup raw cashew nuts, for garnish

  • 1 large onion, cut into rings, for garnish

  • 1/4 cup cilantro or mint leaves, for garnish

In a food processor or blender, grind the chopped onion, ginger, and garlic into a smooth paste. Combine the paste with the yogurt, salt, cayenne powder, and half of the cumin, coriander and garam masala. Add the chicken pieces, mix well, and marinate at room temperature for 6 hours.

Place the chicken in a large skillet, and cook, covered, for about 12 minutes over low heat.

In another skillet, heat the ghee or oil over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the mustard seeds, and when they begin to pop, add the chiles. Pour the ghee or oil (along with mustard and chiles) over the chicken, and continue cooking for 8 to 10 minutes over medium heat or until the moisture evaporates.

Place the chicken in a serving dish. Squeeze the lime juice over the meat, and sprinkle the remaining cumin, coriander, and garam masala over the mixture. Garnish with the lime pieces, cashew nuts, tomato and onion rings, and coriander leaves.

Serves: 4

Heat Scale: Medium


[This article excerpted from A World of Curries, Little, Brown & Co., 1994.]

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