In the Manhattan neighborhood known as Murray Hill, a few blocks along Lexington Avenue have become a Mecca for Indian food lovers. The area is so packed with restaurants peddling dosas, kathi rolls, and kormas that it has become known as “Curry Hill.” And yet on the menus in those restaurants, the word “curry” won’t pop up too often. That’s because most traditional Indian food is not curry.
Indian-American cookbook author Anupy Singla explains in her book, Indian for Everyone:
The word “curry” is widely misunderstood. In the West, especially in the United States, it refers to a spice blend that is added to water, vegetables, and/or meat to lend a distinctly Indian flavor profile.
In the South Asian mind, curry refers less to spice and more to the consistency of a dish. We rarely—if ever—cook with the spice blend known as curry. To us, curry means “gravy.”
When the Portuguese arrived as the first Europeans to “discover” India, they came in through the southern ports, and presumably encountered the delicately spiced dishes of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil, the word kari means a kind of gravy. The Portuguese began to apply that phonetically to many Indian dishes. (Portuguese culinary influences also took root in India, with dishes such as Goa’s tamarind-spiked vindaloo.)
Later, the British Anglicized the term into “curry” when they colonized the subcontinent. That spelling comes from the French word “cuire,” which means “to cook,” says Kantha Shelke, a food scientist and principal at the science and research firm Corvus Blue.
Having acquired a taste for the cumin and coriander-inflected gravy-soaked stews, stained yellow with turmeric, that they were served in India, British colonialists brought back some of those flavors in the form of a new “masala,” or spice mixture: curry powder, a mix of spices, usually including cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, and turmeric. These flavors caught on in Britain to such an extent that chicken tikka masala (an Anglicized and sauced version of tandoori chicken), is now arguably the nation’s favorite food.
The British did create an interesting new flavor, one that has found its way into many dishes around the world, from Japanese curry to German currywurst to South African “bunny chow.” However, their curry powder was not representative of India’s food as a whole, for the simple reason that India is a country of regional cuisines, not a single national one.
If there is one basic cooking technique that much of the country shares, it’s not so much the curry powder flavor that the British fell in love with. Instead, it’s the flavor-layering technique known as “tadka,” Singla tells Quartz. Tadka involves toasting spices in hot oil or ghee, usually in a wok-like karahi, before adding, bit by bit, the vegetables and meat. Sometimes a tadka of hot oil and tempered spices is added at the end of the dish.
The New York-based chef Hemant Mathur owns half a dozen Indian restaurants in New York that specialize in regional cuisines. Over lunch at his Bengali/Marwari restaurant, Haldi, in the heart of Manhattan’s “Curry Hill,” he told Quartz that he doesn’t use curry powder in any of his restaurants. He does use garam masala, a slightly sweet, warming mix of toasted spices. And the word “curry” appears on his menus occasionally, when describing a gravy dish with a specific consistency, or one that was popularized outside India.
In the US, “curry” as a catchall phrase is probably losing ground to more specific terms for cooking styles. As Americans travel to India more, Mathur says, they recognize the variety in Indian food and are more willing to try regional dishes when they return to the US.
Even without a trip to India, it’s possible to sample some of the country’s bewildering culinary variety. Here are a few dishes that go beyond “curry.”
Dhaba Chicken, Punjab
This is a dish you might find in roadside restaurants in the northern state of Punjab. For Westerners, the name is sometimes Anglicized to “Dhaba Chicken Curry,” or “Punjabi Chicken Curry.” Mathur calls it Dhaba Chicken. Tomato, onions, cumin, and coriander are often the base of North Indian dishes, Mathur says.
Chingri Shorsay Narkol, Bengal
Shrimp is simmered in a sauce of coconut, yellow with turmeric and, like many Bengali dishes (paywall), infused with the sinus-clearing tang of mustard oil and ground mustard seeds.
Kerala Veg Stew
Coconut and peppers reign supreme in a number of dishes from the southwestern state of Kerala, including this vegetable stew from one of Mathur’s restaurants.
Sambar, South India
This meal makes its way into many a South Indian lunch tiffin box. A smooth fermented rice cake called idli, or a fried fritter called vada, is dunked into the spicy, soupy lentil-based sambar gravy.
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