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The curious history of curry

Posted in Food & Entertaining


Twenty years ago, on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, sofagirl and I were introduced to an Italian guy who lived all alone on top of a mountain and who treated us to a plate of home made tagliatelle. That proved  my theory that, no matter where you travel, you are bound to come across an Italian or two who have pitched their tents in unlikely locations. But Indians might have us beat.

Unlike Italians who mostly left their native land for economic reasons or for spirit of adventure, many Indians, in centuries past, were coerced (or downright kidnapped) to leave the subcontinent for places as far afield as South Africa or the Caribbean. The upside of such human misery is the nearly worldwide spreading of curry.

In Great Britain curry is a synonym for Indian food in general and it has become a national dish of sort:

I believe curry is the most widely consumed food in the British Isles.

eastindiaCurry, the spice we buy at the supermarket, is largely a British invention. The word is most likely derived from the Tamil “kari” which signified “any meat or vegetables prepared with spices but without gravy”. East Indian Company traders who came across the abundance of spices in the sub-Indian continent took it upon themselves to  mix some together for ease of transportation and, from there on, there was no stopping curry conquering the world. Although there are variations, the five fundamental spices that make up curry are: fenugreek, coriander, cumin, turmeric and cayenne.

An article in my favourite food/literary magazine Lucky Peach (not available online) recently enlightened me on a few points on the history of curry . I was surprised by some tidbits which I thought I would pass along to you, dear readers. Here is your chance to test your curry knowledge.

  1. The beloved “vindaloo” is a Portuguese concoction from the time Portugal threw the Arab out of Goa and claimed it for themselves. The dish is a variation of a Portuguese recipe for pork with wine and garlic, called “carne de vinha d’alhos”.
  2. The first Indian restaurant in Britain opened in 1810, in George Street in London. The first fish and chips shop didn’t make an appearance until 50 years later.

    Chicken Tikka Masala
    Chicken Tikka Masala
  3. That other beloved dish “chicken tikka masala” comes compliments of the English. The original Punjabi dish of chicken tikka (chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in a tandoori oven) must have been too dry for the gravy-loving Brits who added the “masala” sauces made of tomatoes and cream.
  4. “Jubilee Chicken” (essentially a curried chicken salad) was first served to King George V in 1935 for his silver jubilee and subsequently served to Queen Elizabeth II for her coronation and diamond jubilee.
  5. The French put their stamp on curry in Vietnam and Cambodia where it is eaten with baguettes instead of the customary flatbreads.
  6. Indian food took hold in the Caribbean when Indians were brought as indentured servants for five years terms, at the end of which they were offered either a plot of land or a passage back home. Most chose to stay which explains why half of the population of Guyana and a third of Trinidad are of Indian descent. Scotch bonnet peppers, easily found in the Caribbean, replaced Indian style chilis and are still  enjoyed in dishes like Jamaican curry goat and Guyanese curries.
  7. The Brits introduced curry to Japan in the late 19th century. The popular Japanese curries now found in most malls, are much milder than curries elsewhere.

    A bunny chow - originally not served on a plate with a fork
    A bunny chow – originally not served on a plate with a fork
  8. South Africa has its own traditional curry, the bunny chow, most popular in Durban. After the introduction of apartheid, Indian restaurant owners took to stuff government issued white loaves of bread with curry and smuggle them out of their back doors. The tradition stuck and the dish endures today.

Most information was sourced from Lucky Peach – an exhaustive article by Joy Y. Wang. This post was not sponsored by Lucky Peach but, if you love food and “literary writings” about food, I heartily recommend subscribing.

All images found in the public domain

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  1. Janet Rörschåch
    Janet Rörschåch

    This was a great education. Thank you for sharing. I never knew the bit about Vindaloo.

    August 15, 2013
    • Me neither. Total surprise. Apparently the addition of vinegar came about when the dish was made with wine that had turned vinegar-y. Or so the story goes.

      August 15, 2013
  2. Love this post – right down my street! I’m not just about cakes, you know… 😉
    BTW, are you sure about “Jubilee Chicken?” I know this dish as “Coronation Chicken”.
    And now, can we please ‘kidnap’ some more kind and willing Indians and bring them to Toledo? I’m dying for a good curry out here…

    August 15, 2013
    • How do I miss decent currys! For all the amazing ethnic food in Los Angeles, good Indian food is hard to find. Coronation chicken was inspired by the one made for King George. For Queen Elizabeth’s coronation it was renamed “Coronation chicken” and then again “Jubilee” for her recent jubilee. Or so my sources say. Anyway, it’s the same bloody dish. You would think they could come up with something more interesting than curried chicken salad.

      August 15, 2013
      • Ah, I see! That makes sense, albeit in a tragic kind of a way 😉

        I so miss the fabulous range of ethnic cuisines available in London. No decent curries in LA????

        August 15, 2013
  3. silvia

    I LOVE curry. It’s a shame I can’t use it as much as I’d like because the chef at home hates it

    August 15, 2013
    • You could take the reins of the kitchen now and then….and slip in some curry….and let him eat baked cod.

      August 15, 2013

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