How Authentic is the Indian Curry Powder? It Was Invented by the British!

  • 23 Jul 2019

Curry powder is so ubiquitously used in Malaysia that it is easy to forget its actual origins. Most people assume that the curry powder is essentially Indian, used in curries that are well-loved by all races.

But the word 'curry' itself is deceptive because it does not exist in any of the Indian languages to describe the dish that we have come to known as.

Some sources claim that curry is a variation of the Tamil word "kari," which means "sauce" or similar dishes.

Others think the word came from the name of a North Indian dish called "khari", made with buttermilk and chickpea flour. A third suggestion is that curry is derived from another word, "kahari", which is a cooking vessel somewhat like a wok supposedly used to cook curries.

The reason why the curry powder was created was because the British enjoyed Indian food so much and wanted to eat it back in England and in other countries that they had colonised such as America. Shipping spices out of India was very expensive, so the British had the brilliant solution of selling spice blends under the name 'curry powder' since at least 1784.

According to culinary historian Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Curry: A Global History, Indians arrived in North America almost immediately after the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607. "The British from the East India Company made great fortunes and came to America, where they had these big estates," she says. "They brought servants and indentured laborers from India for their estates. India and America were like sister colonies."

Through the 1800s, curry was a common dish and curry powder was a popular ingredient in the United States. One of the earliest quintessentially American cookbooks, The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, has at least six recipes that call for curry powder, including one to make the powder.

Eliza Leslie's bestselling Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (1837) contains a "genuine East India receipt for [chicken] curry," including recipes for mulligatawny soup with freshly ground curry powder.

Mrs. Hill's New Cook-Book (1870), which proclaimed itself "especially adapted to the Southern States," contained recipes for curried meat stews and roasts, a "rice chicken pie" in a curry powder gravy, several ways to curry a calf's head, and Mrs. Hill's own curry powder recipe, made of pounded coriander seed, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, mustard, allspice, cumin, and cardamom.

However, when people from India began settling into places that were colonised by the British, they denounced the usage of curry powder, saying it was oversimplified, inauthentic, and downright degrading to the ancient cuisine it is supposed to recreate.

So when there was a huge influx of Indians migrating into the United States in 1965, they began to change the perception of Indian food that had long became unrecognisable in America as the recipes were written by white Americans.

"What you don't need is curry powder," Madhur Jaffrey, an American chef wrote in 1974 in 'An Invitation to Indian Cookery'. "To me the word 'curry' is as degrading to India's great cuisine as the term 'chop suey' was to China's."

She added that "no Indian ever uses curry powder," nor would they mix their own, since then every dish would taste the same.

"If 'curry' is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine," she charged, "then 'curry powder' attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself."

She points out that "curry powders" are indeed manufactured in India, such as in Madras, and not an ounce of it is used domestically. It's all exported!

In India, Indian cooking doesn't use standard blends. It's more complex than that, with layers of flavours and chosen spices unique to each dish.

So the next time you reach for that curry powder, know that it is a declaration of love from the British to Indian cuisine.

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Source: Atlas Obscura
Photo Credit: The Old Reader & Schwartz