The Curry Compendium: A Guide to Global Curries

Curry is a world unto itself, an aromatic and vivid journey through flavors, colors, and textures that transcend borders and cultures. What started as a quintessentially Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine staple has traveled and transformed, creating an intricate global map of spiced dishes each with its unique identity. Today, we explore the vast spectrum of curries around the world and what makes each special in its own right.

Curry is a complex interaction of herbs, spices, and core ingredients that vary from region to region, and often, from kitchen to kitchen. It’s a testament to human creativity in food, where a simple concept has metamorphosed into countless forms.

The Roots of Curry: The Indian Subcontinent

When most people think of curry, they’re likely reflecting upon a range of dishes from the Indian subcontinent, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The word “curry,” however, is a British colonial simplification. In reality, what falls under this category is a plethora of sauces and gravy-based dishes that utilize a blend of spices, known as “masala.”

Understanding Masalas

Masalas are the heart and soul of Indian curries. They are mixtures of spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, and many others. Sometimes masalas are used dry, and other times they’re mixed into a paste with ingredients like garlic, ginger, and water or oil.

The Regional Varieties of India

From the coconut-laden curries of the South to the creamy delights of the North, each region in India has its take on curry. Kerala is known for its fish and seafood curries, often flavored with tamarind and coconut milk. In contrast, Punjab is famous for its rich, buttery preparations like the world-renowned Butter Chicken.

Distinctive Sri Lankan Flavors

Sri Lanka, though geographically close to India, has developed its unique curry flavors with the use of local ingredients like pandan leaves and goraka, a souring agent.

Moving Westward: Middle Eastern Curries

The concept of curry extends into the Middle East, where it takes on a subtler form. These curries often involve slow-cooked stews with an emphasis on aromatic, rather than spicy, experiences.

Iran’s Khoresh

One of the most well-known Middle Eastern curries is Iran’s Khoresh, which is a family of stews that are typically served over rice. Ingredients like saffron, dried lime, and pomegranate molasses give these dishes a unique flavor profile that’s vastly different from their Indian counterparts.

Arabian Influences

In places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, curries often feature the spice mix baharat, which can contain black pepper, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves among others. The slow-cooked meats and grain-based dishes are subtly spiced and hearty.

South-East Asian Specialties

Heading further east, we find that curries have become a pivotal part of South-East Asian cuisines, most notably in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Thai Curries

Thai curries are among the most recognized globally, thanks to their perfect balance of sweetness, spiciness, umami, and sourness. The renowned Green, Red, and Yellow curries of Thailand are a complex mixture of fresh herbs, spices, and aromatics pounded together to form pastes. Each hue signifies a different set of core ingredients, with green being the spiciest due to the green chilies, and yellow being the mildest, rich with turmeric and sometimes curry powder.

The Diversity of Malaysian and Indonesian Curries

Malaysia and Indonesia offer a rich tapestry of curries, each telling a story of cultural interaction, colonialism, and the spice trade. Rendang, for example, hailing from Indonesia, is a dry curry full of complex flavors, often cooked with coconut milk and featuring beef or chicken.

The Caribbean Blend

Curries traveled with indentured laborers from India to the Caribbean, creating an exciting fusion of flavors.

The Jamaican Curry Goat and Roti

A staple in Jamaican cuisine is Curry Goat, which is milder compared to its Indian influences and often accompanied by Roti, a flatbread that’s perfect for scooping up the rich sauce.

Trinidad’s Unique Approach

Trinidad and Tobago’s curry dishes have an unmistakable Indian influence but with a distinctive Caribbean twist. The use of local herbs and spices, and the prevalence of curried duck and chickpeas, signal this region’s adaptations.

Japanese and Korean Innovations

Japanese and Korean cuisines have also embraced curry, tailoring it to their unique tastes and traditions.

Japan’s Kare Raisu

Japan’s Kare Raisu (Curry Rice) includes a thicker, sweeter sauce than many might associate with curry. The dish often features a simple mix of meat and vegetables like onions, carrots, and potatoes, and sometimes apple or honey for sweetness.

Korea’s Curry Love

In Korea, curry has found its place with dishes like Curry Rice and Katsu-Kare, a breaded and fried cutlet served with curry sauce. The Korean version is typically less spicy, focus on blended spices, and often contains ingredients like potatoes and carrots for added sweetness.

Modern Fusion and Evolution

As the world becomes more interconnected, fusion cuisine gives birth to innovative curry interpretations. Restaurants and home cooks are regularly experimenting with the basic idea of curry, cross-pollinating flavors, and techniques to fit local tastes and available ingredients.

Fusion Restaurants

Fusion restaurants often take popular dishes from various cuisines and give them a curry twist, creating exciting new experiences for diners. Curry flavors can be found in everything from tacos to burgers, showcasing its versatile nature.

Home Cooking Experimentation

In home kitchens, too, there’s been an explosion of creativity with many cooks taking inspiration from traditional curry dishes and tweaking them, sometimes out of necessity due to the availability of ingredients, or sometimes purely for the joy of creating something new. Plant-based curries are also gaining popularity as people search for healthier alternatives without sacrificing flavor.

Finishing Thoughts

The world of curry is as vast and diverse as the cultures that have embraced and transformed it. From the traditional curry houses of the Indian subcontinent to the experimental fusion kitchens of the West, the concept of curry has both shaped and been shaped by global flavors. Its cross-cultural journey has made it a canvas upon which countless culinary traditions have left their mark, and as a result, there truly is a curry for everyone. Whether you are a spicy food aficionado craving the heat, a vegan seeking plant-rich hearty sauces, or simply a curious foodie, the curry compendium offers a dish that will cater to your palate.

Exploring global curries is a reminder of how food transcends boundaries, breeds innovation, and creates new traditions. So the next time you sit down to enjoy a curry, remember you’re not just savoring a meal but partaking in a rich, intricate culinary mosaic that spans continents, cultures, and centuries.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a curry and how is it defined?

A curry is a variety of dishes originating from the Indian subcontinent that feature a complex combination of spices or herbs, typically including fresh or dried hot chilies. The use of the term ‘curry’ has expanded to describe a wide range of dishes across various cultures that are characterized by the incorporation of a spice mix and can be wet (with sauce) or dry.

Can you explain the difference between Indian, Thai, and Japanese curries?

Indian curry often involves a mix of turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fresh or dried chilies. Thai curry typically refers to dishes made with a base of coconut milk, fresh herbs, and a paste that includes ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. Japanese curry, known as “kare,” is commonly thicker, sweeter, and milder than its Indian or Thai counterparts, incorporating a roux with curry powder and often served with rice or noodles.

How do I make a basic curry sauce?

To make a basic curry sauce, sauté chopped onions, garlic, and ginger, then add your desired blend of ground spices (like cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chili powder) to form a paste. Mix this with tomatoes or tomato paste and simmer for a few minutes. Add your main ingredients like meat, seafood, or vegetables, and pour in water or stock. Simmer until the ingredients are cooked, and finish with cream, yogurt, or coconut milk for a richer sauce.

What are some essential spices for a curry?

Essential spices for a curry typically include cumin, coriander, turmeric, mustard seeds, fenugreek, ginger, chili powder or fresh chilies, and garam masala. Other frequently used spices are cardamom, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and cloves.

What is garam masala and how is it used in curries?

Garam masala is a blend of ground spices used in Indian cuisine. It usually includes peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, bay leaf, and cumin. It’s often added towards the end of cooking a curry to enhance flavor and aroma.

Are there any vegetarian or vegan curry options?

Absolutely! Many Indian curries are naturally vegetarian, using ingredients like lentils, chickpeas, vegetables, and paneer cheese. To make a curry vegan, you can substitute dairy products with coconut milk or oil and use plant-based proteins such as tofu or tempeh.

What is the best way to serve curry?

Curry is best served with a base of steamed rice or with flatbreads like naan or chapati to soak up the sauce. Accompaniments can include sambals, pickled vegetables, yogurt-based raitas, or chutneys to balance the flavors.

Can curry dishes be prepared in advance and stored?

Yes, curries often taste even better the next day as the flavors have more time to meld. Make sure to refrigerate your curry in an airtight container and consume it within 3-4 days. Curries can also be frozen for up to 3 months.

Is curry spicy and can it be made less spicy?

While many curries are spicy due to the inclusion of chilies and pepper, they can easily be adjusted to suit individual heat preferences. Using less chili powder, fewer fresh chilies, or incorporating sweet ingredients like coconut milk or cream can help temper the spiciness.

How do you thicken a curry if it’s too watery?

To thicken a curry, you can simmer it uncovered to reduce the sauce, mash some of the ingredients like potatoes or lentils to thicken the base, or add a cornstarch or flour mixture towards the end of the cooking process.

Is it necessary to use fresh spices for curry, or are dried spices suitable?

While fresh spices often provide a more vibrant and intense flavor, dried spices are more convenient, have a longer shelf life, and are perfectly suitable for making curry. Toasting dried spices before grinding them can enhance their flavor profile.

What are some health benefits of eating curry?

Many ingredients in curry, such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, and chilies, are known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Additionally, curries often incorporate a variety of vegetables and legumes, which contribute to a balanced diet with fiber and essential nutrients.