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Curry! Where did it all come from?

Curry is such a British favourite, the UK celebrates National Curry Week, but how was the food invented?

When it’s time for a takeaway, do you order a rogan josh, korma or lamb vindaloo?

By doing so, you are actually tasting a slice of history.

The UK has adopted curry as a “national dish”, with more than 9,000 Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and the creation of British-Asian dishes such as chicken tikka masala and balti, says the National Curry Week website.

It says about 23 million people eat curry regularly.

Since its inception, the word curry has “changed its meaning and become ubiquitous as a menu word”, says Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food.

Once it just meant Indian food, but “it now denotes various kinds of dish in numerous different parts of the world, but all are savoury and all are spiced,” it reads.

“Everywhere the cuisine is enjoyed has its own variations and peculiarities,” says the National Curry Week spokesperson.

An English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, was published in the 1390s, and all hot food was called “cury” from the French word cuire, meaning to cook.

Alan Davidson writes however that curry comes from the Tamil word kari, or spiced sauce, which was originally a thin, soup-like, spiced dressing served in southern India, amongst many other stew-like dressings for meat and vegetables.

Europeans took it to mean any one of their thin dressings, and the Portuguese are credited with popularising it after they colonised parts of India – there is a recipe for kari in a 17th Century Portuguese cookery book.

“The Portuguese discovered India, and Britain followed, but Britain is the country that actually brought spice to the whole world,” explains chef Cyrus Todiwala from BBC Two’s The Incredible Spice Men.

The first curry recipe in English was published by Hannah Glasse in 1747.

To Make a Currey the India Way, was a stew of chicken or rabbits, with a spoonful of rice and several spices – the portions being the reverse of what is served today.

“What had been an Indian sauce to go with rice, became an English stew with a little rice in it,” according to Alan Davidson.

Meanwhile, back in India, the original kari itself had changed, as chillies originally found in Mexico and South America, were introduced to Asia.

From that time on kari included chillies, and became a worldwide phenomenon.

“The British took spices all across the world and started growing them in different countries,” says Cyrus Todiwala. “And now we are a nation with so much spice that actually when Indians go back to India for holidays, we take spices back with us.”

But curry’s origins may go even further back.

Scientists believe they may have found evidence of a 4,000-year-old “proto-curry” in India’s ancient Indus Valley civilisation.

Traces of cooked ginger and turmeric (which remain in use in curries such as lamb vindaloo today) were found in starch grains in human teeth and a cooking pot found in the ancient town of Farmana, west of Delhi by anthropologists.

The findings made by Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber of Washington State University, Vancouver were published in the journal Science.

The Indus Valley was home to one of the world’s first urban civilisations – along with those in Egypt and Mesopotamia – and extends across modern Pakistan and parts of India.

The discovery was dated between 2500BC and 2200BC, making this the earliest recorded use of either spice to be identified in the area.

Even our pairing of rice with curry can be traced back to this time, as extensive use of rice in the Indus Valley civilisation has also been uncovered.

Researchers also found wheat, barley, millet, lentils, bananas and mung beans at the site.

It shows that curry may be the oldest continuously prepared cuisine known in human history, although with modern ingredients like chilli and black pepper added centuries later, the exact definition of curry is still under scrutiny.

Modern curries are still developing and changing, but always with a nod back to history.

The Birmingham Balti originated in the city during the late 70s, when Bengali curry chefs started to make their dishes lighter, healthier and served faster to suit Western tastes, according to the Birmingham Balti Association (BBA).

It has asked the EU Protected Food Names scheme to give the balti its Traditional Speciality Guaranteed Status.

BBC Two’s Indian Food Made Easy chef and cookery writer Anjum Anand has recently added a black pepper curry to her range of sauces.

She says she was inspired by the curries made by the chettinads, an old caste of traders from Tamil Nadu, India.

There is a growing demand for specific, regional curries now, says Anjum Anand.

“Peppercorns were once known as ‘black gold’ and were used by traders instead of money. It is still a prized spice,” she says, and one that has helped inspire her food business, The Spice Tailor.

National Curry Week gives curry fans a chance to vote for the UK’s curry capital, curry pub of the year, favourite restaurant, and best signature dish.

There might be some new contenders, and some old favourites that are reborn. But Britain’s love affair with spicy sauces shows no sign of ending.


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