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What is Curry?

A couple of months after I first landed in the U.S., my husband and I went down to San Diego for a family wedding.

It was my first time meeting his family, so I was a little nervous, not to mention excited about seeing San Diego. At the wedding (which was lovely), I remember sitting down to chat with one of his close relatives. No doubt, in trying to make me feel comfortable, she asked me what part of India I was from.

Then she proclaimed, “I don’t like curry.”

I was a little taken aback by this, but rolled with it. I started trying to explain that “curry” can mean several different things, but nope, she wasn’t having it. So, after a while, I gave up.

Over the years, I’ve noticed continuing confusion about what exactly “curry” is. So I’m here to set the record straight.

Aren’t you lucky?!

Curry is a leaf


Image: Taran Rampersad via Flickr, CC 2.0

If you like South Indian food, you like curry leaves. Because “Southie” food is practically impossible to prepare without this wonderful leaf.

It actually comes from a tree that is native to India, and you are unlikely to find it anywhere other than Indian or South Asian grocery stores, though I’ve seen more and more places that sell them online (I’ve never bought them online so far).

Curry leaves are wonderfully aromatic, and while I often use them when making South Indian food, I also sometimes use them when cooking Thai and other Asian meals.

Curry is a spice

Image: Mike Fischer via Flickr, CC 2.0

Curry powder isn’t a single powdered spice but, rather, a combination of several spices, much like garam masala. It was developed by the British after they colonized India, for which I must be grateful, since I love it.

Curry powder is extremely fragrant while also being quite delicate in nature.So when I use it, I try to ensure it’s the primary spice I use (as in the Oriental Beef Stir Fry with an Indian Twist recipe I shared the other day), rather than overwhelm it with several others. Here’s a recipe for curry powder by Aliza Green, if you’re interested (I haven’t tried it, but it looks good).

Me, I just buy mine at the Indian store (though I have started making my own garam masala at home).

Curry is a dish with gravy

This is probably the misconception about Indian food that drives me craziest. Not every Indian dish is a “curry.”

No!!!!!!!!!

You see, when we say we’re going to “make a curry,” we mean we’re going to make a dish with gravy, as opposed to a dry preparation.

So that beef stir-fry recipe? Not a curry. This “kofta curry” pictured above (“kofta” is Hindi for meatball and yes, I will post the recipe soon)? Curry.

You can have curries that are made with completely different bases for the gravy; yogurt, tomatoes, onion… the possibilities are endless.

If you’re going to have “a curry,” you’re going to have a dish that has gravy in it. Unless you’re British and “going out for curry,” which means you’re just going to find the nearest Indian restaurant or takeout and gorge yourself because Indian food is where it’s at, baby.

So. There you go. Curry, curry and more curry.

Reader Feedback

21 Responses to “What is Curry?”

  • Shonali says:

    @shashib I’m just testing the comment system here…

  • Shonali says:

    @shashib I’m just testing the comment system here, but also wanted to share this with you. :)

  • jrsygrl62 says:

    Congratulations on your new blog Shonali! I agree with you 110% the misconception of the word “curry” has always been a source of confusion when I speak about Indian food.

    I am looking forward to trying some of your vegetarian recipes soon.

    Congratulations again

  • Shonali says:

    @jrsygrl62 You’re vegetarian? I didn’t know that! Look for one on Monday and I’ll try to do more veg stuff for you. I know – doesn’t it drive you NUTS when people say all sorts of silly things about “curry”?!

  • jrsygrl62 says:

    @Shonali Thanks Shonali! I am looking forward to trying a new recipe :)

  • Shonali says:

    What does thecurryguy think of this, I wonder?

  • Shonali says:

    Testing shopna ghosh

  • RanjiniRaoDebnath says:

    Hi Shonali, Gautam Ghosh pointed me over to your blog. Enjoyed reading this clearing-the-mist piece on curry. There are many more Indian food myths to be debunked, but we’re off to a great start, I reckon :)

    It’d be great to connect with you and may I please also request you to visit the food blog I run with my friend Ruchira, over at

    http://tadkapasta.wordpress.com

    We’re also on facebook, at:

    http://facebook.com/tadka

    Thanks and best wishes for your future culinary endeavors :)

    Ranjini

  • Shonali says:

    @RanjiniRaoDebnath Thanks so much for stopping by, Ranjini and @GautamGhosh you rock for sharing this little blog! I’ll definitely check out your food blog, Ranjini.

  • GautamGhosh says:

    @Shonali My pleasure. When @RanjiniRaoDebnath connected with me to share her “fusion” recipes and blog, I thought you folks should connect with each other. Also check out my good friend @kishiarora’s bakery site http://www.foodaholics.in/

    She sells cakes in Delhi (I got one from her for my daughter’s birthday) and they are divine. She’s an ex-CIA (no not that CIA, but Culinary Inst of America) alumni and shares food tips on twitter (also posting pictures of the lovely cakes she’s baking! )

  • Shonali says:

    @GautamGhosh @RanjiniRaoDebnath Now if only she had been ex-CIA as in “that” CIA – how uber-cool would that have been!

  • KimberlyRak says:

    Hi. I have been looking for a vegetarian curry. I have never had Indian food before and would love to make a curry dish from scratch. Thanks so much. Love the curry post.

  • Shonali says:

    @KimberlyRak You’re welcome! OK – I’ll work on a vegetarian curry recipe for you. Can you tell me what kind of curry you like… e.g. a coconut base, yogurt base, tomato base…?

  • LowRoller says:

    hey shonali,
    thanks for the info! had yellow curry last night for dinner but at a thai restaurant. it’s funny, i always thought that curry was the more “dry version” like u mentioned. i always pictured it kind of like spanish paella. i was rather surprised when i saw that it was rather liquidy and soupy. we did have brown rice that was served on the side. is rice usu incorporated in the dish or on the side? LR

    • LowRoller says:

      @LowRoller forgot to mention i live in san diego. thanks again!

    • Shonali says:

      @LowRoller So glad you stopped by – San Diego is one of my fave cities! So… when it’s used in reference to a type of dish, a “curry” usually has gravy, but a thick one. Sometimes you can have lighter curries, like the soupy variety. Usually rice is served on the side, since not everyone wants to eat it in the curry. A terrific Anglo-Indian recipe that often serves a curry (light soupy variety) over rice is Mulligatawny Soup. Have you ever had it?

      • LowRoller says:

        @Shonali hey shonali! thanks for replying to my reply. no ive never had mulligatawny. i’ve only heard about it through seinfeld, “the soup nazi”. lol LR

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