The Curry Compendium: A Guide to Global Curries

Curry is more than just a dish; it’s a symphony of flavors that vary widely across different cultures and regions. This global sensation has made its way into the heart and soul of many a cuisine, each with its unique ingredients, cooking techniques, and stories. From the fiery spices of South Asia to the fragrant blends of the Caribbean, curry is a testament to the diversity and creativity of culinary traditions around the world. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll embark on a flavorful journey through the different types of curries that food lovers everywhere should know and try.

Understanding What Curry Is

To understand curry, one must delve into its etymology. The term ‘curry’ is believed to be an anglicized version of ‘kari’, which in Tamil, a South Indian language, means sauce or gravy. In the Western world, it often refers to a variety of dishes from different cultures, usually characterized by the use of complex combinations of spices and herbs.

Curries have three main components: a combination of ground spices, which usually includes turmeric, resulting in the classic golden hue; a wet base, often onions, garlic, and tomatoes; and secondary ingredients which can be vegetables, meats, or legumes.

The Origins and Varieties of Asian Curries

Curries have deep roots in Asia, with India often touted as the epicenter of this dish. Each region in India has its curry variants, from the creamy and buttery textures in the north to the tangy and spicy versions in the south.

Indian Curry

In India, spices are freshly grounded and mixed into an aromatic blend known as ‘masala’. Garam masala, a mix that often contains cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg, is a staple in North Indian curries, while curry leaves and mustard seeds are commonly found in the South.

North Indian curries might include popular dishes like ‘Butter Chicken’ and ‘Rogan Josh’. They are renowned for their thick, tomato-based sauces and use of dairy such as cream or ghee. Whereas, in the South, ‘Sambar’ and ‘Rasam’ dominate, known for their thinner, sometimes tangy and tamarind-laden bases.

Thai Curry

Just as central to the culinary landscape of Thailand is Thai curry, which generally falls into three categories: Red, Green, and Yellow. These are made from curry pastes which combine fresh ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves with dried spices. Coconut milk frequently tempers the heat in these curries, giving them a rich, smooth texture.

Japanese Curry

Distinctly different from its Asian counterparts is the Japanese curry, which tends to be milder and thicker. Introduced by the British, who adapted curry from India, it has become a comfort food staple in Japan. It often contains a pre-made curry powder or roux, and it’s common to see ingredients such as carrots, potatoes, and onions, alongside rice or noodles.

Curries Beyond Asia

The love for curry has long overcome continental boundaries, finding new homes and interpretations.

British Curry

Owing to the colonial ties with India, curry has a special place in British cuisine. The British adopted Indian curry, and over time, they created versions that have now become classics in their own right. ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’, often jokingly referred to as a “true British national dish,” is actually a British invention that reportedly originated to suit the local palate.

Caribbean Curry

In the Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, curry takes on a unique flavor profile with the use of local ingredients such as scotch bonnet peppers and allspice. Curry Goat is a particularly famous dish in the region, infusing the meat with a hearty dose of spices and slow cooking it to perfection.

African Curries

African curries, particularly those from South Africa, like ‘Bunny Chow’, showcase the fusion of Indian spices with African cooking principles. These curries are often made with indigenous game meats or chicken and use staple food items like maize as a base for the curry.

Common Ingredients in Curries

While ingredients can vary drastically depending on the type of curry, there are some common elements.


The backbone of any curry is its spice mixture. Common spices include turmeric, which gives curry its yellow color, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, chili powder, and fenugreek. These can be used whole, toasted, or ground into fine powders.


Herbs like cilantro (also known as coriander leaves), curry leaves, bay leaves, and mint can be found across a variety of curries. They are used both in the cooking process and as a garnish to add fresh flavors.


Curries can feature a wide range of proteins, from chicken and beef to fish, shrimp, or paneer (a firm Indian cheese). Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans are also common, especially in vegetarian curries.


Vegetables are central to many curries and can include anything from bell peppers, potatoes, and peas, to eggplant and okra. In many vegetarian curries, vegetables take the center stage.


Coconut milk is extensively used in Thai and some South Indian curries to provide a creamy texture and offset some of the heat from the spices. Tomato puree is another base in many North Indian curries, while stock or water is often used to get the desired consistency.

Navigating The Spices

Spices form the essence of curries, and understanding how to use them is crucial.

Whole Spices

Adding whole spices to hot oil at the beginning of cooking releases their aromatic oils and flavors. Cumin seeds, mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and cloves are often used this way.

Ground Spices

Ground spices are added after the onions and garlic are sautéed and are cooked briefly to remove their raw taste. Turmeric, coriander powder, cumin powder, and chili powder are commonly used ground spices.

Spice Pastes

Spice pastes, like those used in Thai curries or to marinate meat, combine spices with wet ingredients like garlic, ginger, and oil to create a base for the dish.

Spice Blends

Garam masala, curry powder, and berbere are just a few examples of spice blends. These are typically added at the end of cooking to preserve their flavor and aroma.

Cooking Techniques

The method of cooking curry can also vary widely.


Bhunao is a technique often used in Indian cooking, which involves stir-frying the spices and base ingredients such as onions, tomatoes, and ginger-garlic paste over high heat. This is done to cook down the ingredients into a concentrated form, deepening the flavors.

Slow Cooking

Slow cooking meats within the curry sauce is another common technique, particularly in thicker, meat-based curries. This allows the flavors to meld together and penetrates the meat for a tender, flavorful dish.


Tempering, known as ‘tadka’ in Hindi, is the process of quickly frying spices in oil and then pouring the mixture onto the dish at the end of cooking. This helps to boost the flavor profile of the dish.

Accompaniments and Pairings

Curries are often served alongside various accompaniments to complete the meal.


Plain, boiled rice is a common side which provides a neutral base to sop up the flavorful curry. Basmati rice is favored for Indian curries, while jasmine rice is preferred with Thai curries.


Breads like naan, roti, or chapati in Indian cuisine, or paratha in Southeast Asia, make perfect vessels for scooping up rich curry sauces.

Chutneys and Pickles

Sides like mint or mango chutney and a variety of pickles can add a tangy or sweet counterpoint to a spicy curry.

Raita or Sambals

Cooling sides such as Indian raita, a yogurt-based condiment, or sambals (side dishes) from Southeast Asia can provide a refreshing contrast to the heat and spice.

Vegetarian and Vegan Curries

Curries are incredibly adaptable to vegetarian and vegan diets.

Dairy-Free Alternatives

Coconut milk provides a rich, creamy texture and is a staple in many plant-based curries. Nutritional yeast or cashew cream can also be used as substitutes for dairy.

Plant Proteins

Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and various beans are protein-rich and nutritious base ingredients for vegan and vegetarian curries.

Tofu and Tempeh

Soy-based products such as tofu and tempeh are often used as meat substitutes and add texture and protein to veggie curries.

How to Enjoy Curry

Enjoying curry can be an art form in itself. Here are a few tips:

– Start with milder curries and work your way up to spicier ones.
– Experiment with different sides to find your favorite combinations.
– Try making your own spice blends or pastes for a more authentic and fresh taste.
– When eating spicy curries, have a cooling drink or side like yogurt to alleviate heat.
– Share with friends or family – curries are often communal dishes meant to be enjoyed in a group.

Finishing Thoughts

Curry is as diverse as the countries and cultures from which it hails. It’s a dish that can endlessly be adapted, customized, and savored. Whether you’re a spice aficionado or a newcomer to the world of curries, there’s a version out there waiting to take your taste buds on an unforgettable journey. An understanding of the basic ingredients, cooking methods, and regional variations can enhance your appreciation and open up infinite possibilities for exploration. So grab your favorite spices, and get ready to cook up a storm – the global curry adventure awaits you!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is curry and where did it originate?

Curry is a broad term for a variety of dishes originating from the Indian subcontinent. It typically refers to a dish prepared with a complex combination of spices and herbs, which may include turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fresh or dried chilies. The term “curry” is also widely used to describe similar spiced dishes across various Asian and African cuisines. The concept of curry as a sauce dates back to 2500 BCE in the Indus Valley civilization. The word ‘curry’ itself was likely adopted and popularized by the British during their colonial rule of India.

How are curries different across various countries?

Curries differ greatly across countries, reflecting local ingredients, culinary traditions, and cultural preferences. For instance, Indian curries often feature a rich blend of spices and may include dairy like ghee or yoghurt. Thai curries, in contrast, typically combine herbs and fresh ingredients, with a notable feature being the use of coconut milk and curry pastes. In Japanese cuisine, curry has a sweeter, milder flavor and often has a thicker, stew-like consistency. Similarly, Caribbean curries such as a Jamaican curry goat, use a mix of spices that includes allspice and habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers, giving them a distinctive flavor.

What are some of the main ingredients in curry dishes?

Main ingredients in curry dishes can vary widely, but some common components include a base of sautéed onions, garlic and ginger, a blend of ground spices, and a liquid component such as water, coconut milk, or broth. Ingredients like meats, seafood, or vegetables are then added and simmered together. Spices may include turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili peppers, fenugreek, cardamom, and cinnamon, amongst others. Fresh herbs including cilantro or basil are often used as a garnish.

Is curry powder the same as a curry paste?

No, curry powder and curry paste are not the same. Curry powder is a dry blend of powdered spices that may include turmeric, coriander, cumin, and other spices. It is typically used as a seasoning and can be added directly to dishes. Curry paste, on the other hand, is a combination of ground spices, fresh ingredients like lemongrass, garlic, and ginger, and often some kind of oil or vinegar to form a paste. Curry pastes are common in Southeast Asian curries and are used as a base to develop flavor before adding liquid ingredients.

Can curries be vegetarian or vegan?

Yes, many curries are naturally vegetarian or can easily be made vegan. In Indian cuisine, for example, there is a wide range of curries featuring lentils, chickpeas, vegetables, and paneer (a type of cheese) that are vegetarian. To make a curry vegan, any dairy products can often be replaced with plant-based alternatives, such as using coconut milk instead of cream, and omitting or substituting ghee and paneer.

How can I adjust the spiciness of a curry?

The spiciness of a curry can be adjusted by altering the amount and type of chili peppers or chili powder used. If you’re heat-sensitive, start with small amounts and gradually increase to taste. For a milder version, you can use less spicy peppers or even bell peppers as a substitute for part of the chilies. Conversely, if you prefer a hotter curry, include more chilies or add extra chili powder. Be aware that some other spices, such as black pepper and ginger, can also contribute to the overall heat.

What is the best way to serve and enjoy curries?

Curries are best served with a starchy base that can absorb their flavorful sauces. Common accompaniments include rice, naan, roti, or other types of bread. In addition, condiments such as chutney, sambals, pickled vegetables, or yogurt-based raitas can complement the flavors and help balance the heat. Curries are often enjoyed as a main dish, sometimes accompanied by a variety of side dishes that showcase different flavors and textures.

Can curry dishes be made in advance?

Curry dishes are often ideal for making in advance as the flavors tend to enhance when given time to meld. In many cases, a curry can taste even better the next day. Curries can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for longer storage. Always ensure the curry is reheated thoroughly before serving. It’s also advisable to store rice and breads separately to maintain their texture when reheating.