Curry is a popular, staple takeout dish in many parts of the world, but many people do not understand the reason why. It is only upon further inspection that they realize the many vibrant and varied types of curry, bound together by an intricate, if not troubling history. Nevertheless, this complex history has spread curry throughout the world, and almost every country on every continent has their variant of curry.
The word “curry” comes from Tamil word kari, which means to season. Tamil is native to Sri Lanka and southern regions of India, and European colonizers used the term to refer to all wet dishes in India. However, curry spices were valuable the world over, because without refrigeration, spices could not only mask the flavor of unappealing foods but also help preserve them. Although Europe had been long introduced to the spices present in curry, through trade routes over land, the Portuguese were the first to successfully attempt to play a bigger role in the spice trade through an aquatic route. They were the first colonizers in India in 1498, and although they did establish violent control over several Western regions of India, their handiwork could not compare to that of the British, who also wanted to a piece of the pie. They established the state-sponsored British East India Trading company in 1600 and within a century became strongest players in international spice trade. They achieved this by colonizing the majority of the Indian subcontinent in order to control the source of curry spices. India did not overthrow British rule until 1947, and today remain a developing middle-income country. However, today, the British are possibly the most visibly appreciators of curry, having made curry a “national dish” and celebrating their annual “National Curry Week.”
Having wrested control of the spice trade from the Portuguese, the British spread it to other countries through trade and colonization. They used their curry trade to smuggle opium into China during the nineteenth century aid in their project of also controlling the tea trade. Through China, curry powders were spread through East and Central Asia.
Europeans also traded curry with Japan when the Meiji Emperor opened its borders in 1868. The Japanese used it to disguise bland high protein meat portions in its navy and military and then used curry in its rations as part of Korean reparations.
Curry made other cross-cultural exchanges. Chilis introduced to Indian curries from Latin America, and Latin America started making their own curries, all due to trans-Atlantic trade. And finally, in a full circle of life, regions of India started actually calling it original traditional dish “curry” and using Western, generic curry powder in addition to their own spices.
Today, there is greater demand for specific, authentic, regional curries, and there are so many, in Asia, in Latin America, and in Africa, all a result of Western influence, imperialism, and control. And today, Western countries continue to consume curries too, with a strong preference for the Indian curries of its original discovery.