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The Truth About Curry

The British, while in India, cultivated a taste for spices. Upon their return home they attempted to create those exotic flavours they had loved in India. The result was ‘curry powder’!

The word ‘curry’ is said to be the anglicised word from the Tamil word ‘kari’ which either related to the curry leaf (kari patha) or a dish with ‘gravy’. The British picked this word up (not knowing the meanings) and coined ’curry powder’ to describe their creation of an Indian spice blend. Unfortunately in doing so, the word ‘curry’ has not just become a general description for Indian cooking (colour, taste, style and method) but has also promoted the notion that one spice blend called ‘curry powder’ is the way to make an authentic Indian dish.

The word ‘curry’ in India simply means ‘gravy’ or ‘sauce’. In Kerala when the question is asked of the host, during a meal, ‘curry ondo?” the diner is asking, “what is there to wet my rice or bread?” The ‘curry’ could simply be yoghurt.


The Indian word to describe spice blends is ‘masala.’ Every cook, household and family has their own home-made blends for meat, fish, and vegetables. There is constant experimentation with new ingredients and spices.

As a result, there are lots of spice blends, constantly being created, changed and adapted across India – each uniquely made to suit individual preference and base ingredients eg. fish, meat, or vegetable.

When a new dish is presented the question that is asked is “what masala did you use?”

In Kerala they make both wet and dry masalas. Commonly used spices which are grown in Kerala include coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, mustard and nutmeg which are added to various dry masalas. Freshly grated coconut or coconut milk, green and dried red chillies, turmeric and curry leaves may also be added. These fresh ingredients are often part of a wet blend, ground together to form a thick paste and combined with dry spices or added directly to the cooking.

So the next time you want to make a curry, forget the curry powder and start experimenting with aromatic Indian spices to create your own ‘masala’.


Special Note: This article comes from a special publication entitled “Tastes & Traditions: Stories of Food, Family and Culture from India’s Spice Coast”. Written by Leelamony Pillai and Teresa George, it will expand your experience of India and awaken your tastebuds to a regional Indian cuisine, which is tropical, colourful and fragrant. This masterpiece can be ordered from Offering over 80 exquisite but simple recipes, the net proceeds from book sales will be donated to an Australian charity.

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