‘Curry’ is an English word used to denote a wide range of dishes from the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia generally made by cooking seafood, meat, legumes or vegetables in a spice paste with stock or coconut milk.
Many, though not all, are spiced up with varying degrees of chilli, and some are quite dry while others are more like soups. The word itself is an English adaption of the Tamil word ‘kari’, which means ‘spiced sauce’, as good a description as any for these popular dishes.
Curry powder as we know it, a commercial blend of spices usually heavy on turmeric, cumin and chilli, originated during the British rule in India, though all of the cuisines that make curries have a range of dry spice mixes (called masala in Indian cooking) or pastes (such as Thai red and green curry pastes) that form the basis of these dishes. A mortar and pestle of some description (marble, stone, wood) is generally used for grinding the dried spices and/or fresh ingredients to make a curry paste or powder.
Spices such as fennel, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, coriander and pepper would have formed the basis of early curries which spread from India through Burma to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and further south to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The now ubiquitous chilli, a native of the Americas, wasn’t introduced to Asia until the Portuguese established a trading centre in Goa in the early 1500s. Curries were later carried further afield to Japan, the Caribbean, Pacific islands such as Fiji, South Africa and The Philippines.
Curries are usually served with steamed rice, jasmine for South East Asian and basmati for Indian, or with flat breads such as roti, naan or paratha. Chutneys, pickles and small cooling salads are traditionally served with Indian-style curries, while Thai curries are one component of a multi-dish meal typically including other dishes such as a soup, a stir-fry and a salad.
Fish with firm flesh that holds together well, such as salmon, ling, swordfish and kingfish, are good choices for curries, as are prawns and other crustaceans. The rich flavours of a curry also complement oily fish, such as mackerel, mullet and tuna. Curries can be mild or spicy, dry or saucy and as simple or as complex as you wish. A good commercial curry paste combined with some ready-made stock and coconut milk forms the basis of a quick mid-week meal, or you can start from scratch to grind a fresh paste and slow cook ingredients for a more complex dish when time permits.