A World of Curries: The Migration of Curries

Dave DeWitt A World of Curries, Asia, India Leave a Comment

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someone

By Dave DeWitt


Nutty Curried Lamb
from Sind

Curried Lamb Shanks

Ghurka Pork Curry

Spicy Lime Chicken


Spiced and Baked Fish

Transport Carts Carrying Food and Spices, Pakistan

Curries have never stayed in one place.  As a natural result of trade, migration, and foreign invaders, they first spread through India and then into the neighboring countries.  As they moved, changes in ingredients and methods of cooking were inevitable.

Moghuls and the British Raj

From the eighth through the sixteenth centuries A.D., India was subjected to a series of Muslim invasions. Turkish tribes swept through India from the west and the Moghuls invaded from the northwest and settled across most of northern India.  There were periodic Muslim kingdoms established in northern India, but it took until 1526 before Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, conquered the Punjab and declared himself to be the Emperor of India.  So began the Moghul rule of India, which lasted until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

During the sixteenth century, land routes across India began to connect the spice-growing south with northern India, Central Asia, Afganistan, Tibet, and Bhutan.  During the rule of Akbar (1556-1605), the greatest of the Moghul emperors, the cultivation of spices was encouraged all over India, and especially in Punjab, where mustard, ginger, poppy seed, sesame, turmeric, coriander, cumin, and chile peppers were grown.  Interestingly enough, despite the fact that Portuguese missionaries attended Akbar’s court in Delhi, the Moghuls hardly knew of the Europeans’ lucrative spice trade along the Malabar Coast.


Akbar’s prime minister, Abul-Fazl, in his book Ain-i-Akbari (1602), compiled a list of numerous dishes and the curry spices used in them; the book is notable for the first mention of chile peppers in Indian cookery. One of the favorite dishes of Akbar’s court was a Mughlai curry called do-piyaza, or two onions, which combined four pounds of onions with twenty pounds of meat, seasoned with crushed red chiles, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, and black pepper.


Meanwhile, further south, the British had watched with envy as both the Portuguese and the Dutch were growing rich from the spice trade in India and the Spice Islands.  The British East India Company was founded in London in 1599, with Queen Elizabeth of England granting the company the sole British right to trade with India.  The first Company ship, the Hector, arrived in India the following year, landing at Surat, north of Bombay.  The captain of the Hector, William Hawkins, searched the interior for jewels and spices, and was greeted at the Moghul court by the Emperor Jahangir, probably the world’s most powerful and wealthy ruler.  Jahangir promptly made Hawkins a member of his court and presented him with the most beautiful woman in his harem.  He also signed a trade agreement with the British East India Company, which allowed the Company to establish trading depots near Bombay.  The British had finally established a toehold in India, and by 1626 they had trading centers on both coasts of India.

By 1800, the Company had taken the Malabar coast by force and also controlled Bengal and Madurai.  The British established “Spice Gardens ” in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu in south India to encourage the cultivation of cinnamon and nutmeg in a more scientific manner.  They also introduced the cultivation of cloves into India. Englishmen and women who were stationed in India in the early days of the Raj had no choice but to eat native foods because of the difficulty of obtaining British imports.  Jennifer Brennan, the author of Curries and Bugles, noted that: “The cooks were talented, mostly.  Goanese, Nepalese, Madrassi or Bengali, they had served long apprenticeships with a variety of families and were well used to the idiosyncracies of British tastes. [They] all could, naturally, produce a wide range of Indian food, accented by the regional tastes of their home provinces. ”  Many of those regional tastes were curries.  “If any of my readers desire to make a real, good, Indian curry, get a Mohammedan woman to make one for you, ” advised Harriet Tytler in her nineteenth century memoir, An Englishwoman in India.  She added: “Only warn her not to make it too hot, for the English traveler does not consider it good manners to weep over his meals, especially after just giving thanks for what one is about to receive. ”

The British may have looted India to a great extent, but they also did some good, especially with agriculture in the country, as India became the largest producer of spices in the world.  After satisfying the spice demand at home, the country now is second in the world in chile production (after China), it accounts for twenty percent of the world’s black pepper, fifty percent of its dried ginger, ninety percent of its cardamom, plus copious amounts of turmeric, saffron, cumin, cloves, fenugreek, cinnamon, and fennel.

Curries of the North, West, and East

Curries in the northern region of India and the neighboring countries tend to be drier and milder in heat than their counterparts in the southern part of the country. This cuisine tends to use yogurt rather than the coconut of the southern states.  Also, in the curries of Pakistan there is a preponderance of nuts and dried fruits.  The most famous curries of the north are the Moghlai curries, which are a subtle blend of Indian and central Asian cuisines, and which are the heritage of the courts of the Moghul emperors.

Of all the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent, it is the Moghlai and Punjabi food that is most commonly available in Indian restaurants in the United States, Britain, and Europe.  Most of these restaurants are owned by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, but since the region of Punjab is divided between India and Pakistan, for someone on the Pakistani side of the border to start a restaurant and call it an Indian restaurant is not a problem. And for a Bangladeshi, who might have worked for a Pakistani chef before his country became independent, starting a Moghlai-style restaurant is, well, a curry-walk.

Further north, in Tibet and Nepal, curries are still quite popular.  The mild Tibetan curries usually contain goat, chicken, or water buffalo. Tibetans also dry the entire buffalo carcass, treat it with curry spices, and eat the dried meat along with vegetables.  The Tibetans, who are devout Buddhists, eat meat with impunity, like rest of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The Bengalis in India’s West Bengal state and in Bangladesh have great political and religious differences; most of the former are Hindus and the latter are predominantly Muslims. Traditionally, the Hindus shun eating beef while the Muslims eat it with great relish.  And then there are many disputes relating to river water; the Ganges flows from India into Bangladesh, where it is called Padma, and the Bangladeshis say that India hampers the flow of its water.

But despite these differences, the two people agree on one  thing: their passion for fish. Even the Brahmins eat fish as a part of their daily fare, calling it “the fruit of the sea ” to avoid the stigma of eating flesh.  A popular story in Calcutta illustrates the Bengali passion for fish.

Swami Vivekananda, India’s well-known philosopher and monk, continued eating fish even after joining a religious order which forbade it. His detractors went to his superior, Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and complained that Vivekananda was not a true ascetic. “Don’t watch what goes into his mouth, ” Paramahamsa replied, “listen to what comes out of it. ”

Nutty Curried Lamb from Sind
(Sindhi Gohst)

The region of Sind of Pakistan is well known for its many lamb and beef dishes. This dish is marinated for at least six hours in a fragrant paste of onion, garlic, ginger, and dried spices, so it takes advanced preparation.

3 large onions, chopped
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
8 cloves garlic
2 green chiles, such as serranos, stems removed and halved
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon cumin powder
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
2 tablespoons vinegar
3 pounds boneless lamb or beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1/4 cup raw cashew nuts
1/4 cup almonds
Salt to taste
6 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a food processor or blender, grind the onions, tomatoes, garlic, chiles, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and vinegar. Set this paste aside.

Puncture the lamb with a sharp knife in many places and marinate at room temperature in the paste for 6 hours.

In a skillet, cook the lamb and fennel seeds, covered, over low heat, for about 1 hour or till the lamb is tender. Sprinkle water from time to time.

Remove the lid, add cashew nuts, almonds, and salt to taste. Raise the heat, and cook untill all the liquid evaporates.

Add the oil to the lamb, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Curried Lamb Shanks
(Raan Shahnshahi)

Traditionally, an entire leg of lamb is marinated in the massala overnight and cooked over low heat for two or three hours. A simplified version follows.

1 tablespoon saffron strands
4 tablespoons warm milk
1 tablespoon each of almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, and raisins
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
1 cup coconut milk (see recipe, here)
1 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
10 cloves garlic
1 small green papaya, peeled, seeds removed, and diced
1/2 teaspoon each powdered nutmeg and mace
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 tablespoon cumin powder
6 fresh red chiles, such as serranos, stems removed
2 cups yogurt
Salt to taste
4 pounds lamb shanks, chopped with a cleaver into 1-inch long sections
4 teaspoons ghee (recipe here) or vegetable oil
2 large onions, finely chopped

Combine the saffron with the milk and puree into a smooth paste in the blender. Set aside

In a food processor or blender, grind all the nuts along with raisins, poppy seeds, and coconut milk, into a smooth paste. Reserve.

In a food processor or blender, grind the ginger, garlic, papaya, nutmeg, mace, coriander, cumin, and chiles into a separate paste. Combine this paste with the yogurt, add salt, and reserve.

In a large saucepan, combine the nut paste, the yogurt paste, and lamb shanks and marinate for 30 minutes.

Heat the ghee or oil in a skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, add the onions, cook for 1 minute, then add the marinated shanks (with the marinade) and cook, covered, over low heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Stir occasionally, adding cold water if the mixture is too thick. Add the saffron mixture and continue cooking, covered, for another 10 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Ghurka Pork Curry

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: 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 (recipe here)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 cup water
Salt to taste
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg powder
1/2 teaspoon clove powder
1/2 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

Spicy Lime Chicken
(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 up into serving pieces
1/4 cup ghee (recipe here) 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
1/2 cup raw cashew nuts, for garnish
1 large onion, sliced 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.

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 cumin, coriander, and garam masala over the mixture. Garnish with the lime pieces, cashew nuts, tomato and onion rings, and cilantro or mint leaves.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium


One of the most aromatic, rich, colorful, and tasty of Indian dishes, biryani is prepared across India. But the best biryani–whether made from beef, lamb, chicken, fish, or vegetables–is found in the regions around Delhi.  These regions were ruled by Muslims for several centuries, and their hearty love for rich food has left behind a culinary legacy.  Biryani is a time-consuming culinary exercise, but it has rich rewards.  Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

1 tablespoon saffron strands
4 teaspoons warm milk
2 fresh green chiles, such as serranos, stems removed
2 fresh red chiles, such as serranos, stems removed
2 large onions, chopped
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled
8 cloves garlic
8 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 1-inch piece of cinnamon, crushed
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon powdered nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon powdered mace
1/2 cup mint or cilantro leaves
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 cups plain yogurt
3 pounds of boneless chicken, cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon ghee, recipe here
1 onion, finely chopped
8 large tomatoes, chopped
2 cups basmati or long grain rice
1/3 cup each raisins, cashews, and almonds
6 hard boiled eggs, halved

Soak the saffron in warm milk for 5 minutes and then puree in a blender.  Add the chiles, onions, garlic, ginger, cloves, peppercorn, cardamom seeds, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, poppy seeds, nutmeg, mace, mint or cilantro leaves, and lemon juice. Blend into a smooth paste. Put the paste into a large bowl, add the yogurt, and mix well.

Marinate the chicken in the yogurt mixture with salt to taste for at least 2 hours. For the best results, marinate for 6 hours.

In a  skillet, heat the oil over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the ghee, and 15 seconds later, add the onions, and fry them for about 8 minutes. Reserve for garnishing.

In the same skillet, cook the marinated chicken with the tomatoes for about 10 minutes over medium heat, uncovered. Remove the chicken pieces from the sauce and set aside.

Add the rice to the sauce, bring to a boil, and cook, covered, over low heat for 15 minutes. Return the chicken, any remaining saffron paste, raisins, cashews, and almonds; mix well. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.

Place the chicken, eggs, and the rice in such a way that the yellow of the eggs, the saffron colored rice, the nuts, and the chicken make a colorful display. Add the reserved onions as a garnish.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Spiced and Baked Fish
(Masala Dum Machchi)

This popular Bengali fish recipe is usually prepared with hilsa, a fish with very firm flesh.  Swordfish and tuna are good substitutes.  Rubbing the fish with turmeric and then washing it is an Indian culinary tradition to clean the fish.  Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

2 tablespoons turmeric powder
6 1-inch thick fish steaks
6 tablespoons mustard or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled finely minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh red chiles, such as serrano, stems removed, and halved
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon clove powder
1 cup yogurt
Salt to taste
1/4 cup parsley leaves or cilantro for garnish

Rub the turmeric powder on the fish, and wash in cold water. Dry the fish on paper towels.

In a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons oil over medium heat for 3 minutes and add the mustard seeds; when they begin to pop, reduce the heat, add the ginger, garlic, and chile and fry for 2 minutes. Add the cumin, coriander, and clove powders. Fry for 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat, and combine its contents with the yogurt in a large bowl. Add salt.

Grease a large baking dish with 2 tablespoons of oil, place the fish steaks in the dish, and pour the yogurt marinade over them. Marinate at the room temperature for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Bake the fish, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Gently flip the fish, reduce the heat to 200 degrees, and cook for 10 minutes.

Garnish with cilantro or mint leaves just before serving.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someone