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Curry Before Columbus (contingentmagazine.org)
82 points by Thevet 28 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

I've lived in Peru which also has a very spicy cuisine (many chilis come from the Andes). However, you'd be surprised at the amount of locals who confessed to me they didn't like food that is too spicy (they like it mildly spiced, or white people spiced as the article says) or spicy at all. It wouldn't surprise me if these two combined would represent 50% of the population. Could be the same in India.

There’s a tendency to conflate “spicy” flavor with “chilly” or “hot”. They are two orthogonal parameters, you could dial (up or down) them independent of each other. Most spices aren’t chilly, they add unique smell and flavor without burning the tongue.

Coming to India, almost every cuisine is spicy for sure. At least I don’t know of one that is not. Indians grow up immersed in spicy food and can’t live without it. And to be honest once your palette gets used to spicy flavor it’s hard to go back to bland food. Anecdotally I’ve heard many westerns complain about blandness of their food once they are used to Indian flavor.

Very few Indian cuisines dual up “hot” knob. Andhra Pradesh cuisine is an example of that. It’s almost at the limit of not killing the flavor.

So to summarize about India, we almost universally love spicy food. Some of us like it hot too

In my experience, "spicy" refers almost exclusively to chili pepper, with the sensation you get from black pepper, mustard or horseradish being edge cases.

If something is flavored with other spices, it's "spiced." e.g. "pumpkin (pie) spiced latte" or "jerk spiced."

I've seen "spicy" used by the beer community to describe spiced flavors of certain strains of hops.

For example, English Fuggle hops are typically described as "spicy", when the spice flavors in question are more along the lines of clove or allspice and not capsicum.

There’s a tendency to conflate “spicy” flavor with “chilly” or “hot”.

I disagree. You're describing the difference between "spicy" (e.g., cayenne) and "warm spiced" or "spiced" (e.g., cumin). When a dish tastes of cumin, one doesn't call it "spicy", they use a different term.

There's a traditional dish from the Greek island of Corfu called "pastitsada". It's pasta topped with meat (usually beef) cooked in a red tomato sauce with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, paprika, chilli pepper, black pepper and cumin. I typically add white pepper and cardamom, others have their own secret recipes.

So, how do you call that, if not spicy? It's a genuine question because English is not my first language and I always refer to food that's heavy on spices as "spicey", because I don't know any other word for it.

In English, "spicy" (usually) means that it will cause your tongue to burn and/or tingle due to the effects of chili pepper or black pepper or hot mustard or anything that causes your mouth to react with what I would call a physical sensation rather than a flavor sensation (of course they are not entirely distinct but that is where I draw the line).

Many dishes contain a lot of spices (nutmeg, cardamom, clove, etc.) but they aren't considered "spicy" because there's no sensation of heat/burning. These dishes are "spiced" but not "spicy" (in English).

It doesn't necessarily make sense, but that is just how common usage has evolved.

OK. Well, I've been using it wrong then :)

Truth be told, in Greek also, where we have lots of dishes with many spices (and some which are made with specific spices, like pastitsada) we don't have a special word for "food with lots of spices" either. We just use the circumlocution.

> We just use the circumlocution.

I think it is an ambiguous category. At least to native (American) English speakers and heathens like me. The only evidence I can offer of this is that in my language culture, I routinely hear "spicy hot", and often enough when one should simply say "spicy", anticipate the question "spicy hot"?

That qualifies as a circumlocution to me. BTW, I didn't think you Greeks learned Latin since all the classy Romans wanted to speak Greek ;-)

Ah, that's a good point. I'm sure I've heard that question often- "spichy hot?". Kind of like "funny weird or funny ha-ha?".

>> That qualifies as a circumlocution to me. BTW, I didn't think you Greeks learned Latin since all the classy Romans wanted to speak Greek ;-)

Oh, actually I learned some Latin in high school, most of which is now forgotten. But, I was surprised by that turn of phrase myself: I was trying to translate from the Greek in my head to English and suddendly a bit of Latin fell out :)

Edit: Also, to be fair, I love surprising my native English speaker interlocutors with weird little bits of English they never use and which I know because I first learned English not as my everyday language, but from books and textbooks. It helps that some of those weird bits are well, Greek. e.g. I surprised my thesis advisor the other day when I used the Greek plural of "lemma", "lemmata" which turns out to be perfectly correct English, although it's not often used. My advisor suggested I refrain from using such obscure words in papers since most reviewers would probably be confused by them and be annoyed at me- and you don't want to piss off reviewers!

>OK. Well, I've been using it wrong then :)

You are actually correct, it's the English that use the word wrong.

Spicey should be a measure of the variety of spices used... A very small % of people from spice rich countries would consider pepper a primary or default "spice".

It's an English word. Maybe it doesn't jibe with your concept of spices, but you can hardly say native English speakers are using the word wrong.

It doesn't make logical sense.

I suspect this misuse is due to the early 12th-16th century English population's ignorance of the complexity of global spice markets and black pepper being one of the first popularized spices once trade routes expanded.

Peppery would make much more sense.

It has chili peppers, so you certainly can call it spicy, if you want to highlight that aspect of the flavor specifically. But you don't need to limit yourself to one word, especially when it seems like this dish has a lot of different aspects to it, so you could also use others like "spiced" or "warmly spiced" to refer to the flavors like cinnamon, cumin clove, etc, specifically or that a lot of such spices were used.

I'd probably just call it flavorful. Might be described as "warm spiced" on a restaurant menu because of the first four spices, which are often included in blends called (among other names) warm spices.

I might also call it spicy because of the chili pepper.

I guess this is an American thing. Typically "spicy" relates to the heat level. The "spices" used in the food typically are described with other terms ("well seasoned", "flavored", etc)

fragrant and spicy

Hotness is relative though: they may not "dial it up" by Indian standards, but chili still makes its way into almost everything. A Russian colleague of mine visiting Delhi, not generally regarded as a hotbed of hotness, found virtually everything except dal makhani inedibly spicy -- because she was used to Russian food, where chilis traditionally don't feature at all.

India is also one of the few places I've been to where chilis are regularly used for breakfast dishes and even drinks like aam ka panna (spicy green mango juice).

Sure but did she find it spicy as in "having copious amounts of spice" or spicy as "a taste similar to food that is of a high temperature" or spicy as in "off-gassing something that irritates one's nasal passages" (I don't really consider this last one "spicy" or "hot" but many people do so I'm including it)?

To reply that "hotness is relative" without clarifying which usage of the word you mean or implying that your friend in the anecdote even made that clarification is exactly what the person you are replying to is complaining about.

This limitation of colloquial English where the word "spicy" is overloaded to refer to all three axis of "spicy" at the same time and hot is also (though less frequently) overloaded in the same manner is exactly what we're discussing.

You can have something that's not very "hot" be very "spicy" on one of the other two axis. Try eating a tablespoon of cinnamon or that Chinese mustard that comes with takeout.

European food that is "spicy" on one axis but nearly zero on the other two is rare hence why this overloading exists and isn't really a problem when discussing food from anywhere that doesn't have a rainy season.

Can’t speak for the rest of the anglosphere, but in the US, when someone says “spicy”, they mean “this has too much capsaicin”. If someone were referring to the strength of the taste, they would probably just say “I don’t like this flavor”, or as a stretch, “the spices in this dish are too strong”. Not sure what point you’re making here. I assure you, even though there may not be dedicated words for them, English speakers are quite able to articulate the differences between the different categories of plants that are added to food to make it taste better.

No, food can be spicy without being hot. The OPs point I believe is that hot and spicy are often incorrectly used interchangeably. Dishes with cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg, star anise, cardomom could all be considered "spicy" but without a component that specifically adds heat(chili seeds, wasabi, horseradish, tobasco) they would not be hot.

There are also many chili peppers that are sweet and mild - Ancho Chiles, Poblanos, Aji Panca being examples. There are also many Indian regional cuisines that are spicy but not hot - Punjabi and West Bengal come to mind.

I don't think it's incorrect per se to uses spicy and hot interchangeably. It's just maybe not common to all dialects of English. Where I'm from nobody would refer to a dish flavored with your first list as spicy.

No cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg, star anise are ingredients common to every spice rack and every grocery store's spice aisle in the English speaking world. Even one of Starbucks most popular drinks is a "Spiced Pumpkin Latte" which consists of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, served over ice. During the European Age of Discovery the "Spice Island" i.e the Molucas in what is now Indonesia were so important because they were the source of nutmeg and cloves. Spice is added to food for either flavor or aroma. Heat is a sensation, its felt. Lastly Capsaicin - the compound in the ribs and oil of peppers doesn't add flavor just a sensation. There is no such thing as a salty, sweet or bitter heat. And it's not just English, in Spanish something that had heat such as a hot salsa would be considered "piquante" but not spicy.

Cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg and star anise are undoubtedly spices. Didn't mean to suggest otherwise.

However, a dish incorporating them isn't usually referred to as spicy in my experience. Unless it also contains chili pepper.

Yeah sorry, by spicy I meant hot. Every cuisine uses spices of some kind. As another commenter said, spicy usually means hot, while spiced means it has some kind of condiment in it such as salt and pepper or any other kind.

I found the cuisine of Tamil Nadu near Madurai to not be very spicy. Perhaps that's because I'm used to Andhra food, with our explosive mango pickles.

... curry leaf gets a mention. So let's talk about curry leaf in the context of curry not being a 'thing' ... I have a curry leaf plant and we use it in our dal, and in rogan josh (a curry but also not a curry) and spinach and potato diahes

Although I don't read medieval Persian, my guess is that "burned vegetable oil" would be better translated as "mustard oil heated to its smoke point". Mustard oil was (and still is) a common cooking oil in the region, and heating it to high temperature reduces the pungent taste.

Indeed the versatile tomato could almost be seen historically as a calling card from the Portuguese. In Brazil one can eat Moquecas which are a spicy tomato-based stew which sometimes resemble the the spicy fish curries in the South of India. And in the US red chowder which is often inexplicably called "Manhattan chowder" is actually Rhode Island clam chowder, Rhode Island being a state with a large Portuguese population. And in Portugal itself Refogado is tomato sauce that forms the basis of many wonderful stews, soups and rice dishes there.

2 other potential sources of the word "curry"

- kadhai (Indian wok)

- Kari patta: a spicy leaf, staple in South Indian cuisine (and very tasty)

There's also kadhi[1], which interestingly is not the same dish as the Tamil 'kari'.

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kadhi

So no connection to "cury" then:


According to Wiktionary, the existing Middle English word "cury" (= "cooking") may have influenced the word.


As Sri Lankans, "Curry" for us would be a dish made by mixing a variety of powdered spices with coconut milk and made into a sauce. If this sauce is cooked along with chicken it's called chicken curry and so on. But it has to be a dish made out of coconut milk and spices.

Just before the lockdown I threw away some hing that had been on my spice rack for a long time. Way longer than one should keep spices. So I went to the local spice shop to stock up on some items, including a fresh jar of asefetida. I had forgotten how pungent it is when fresh. Now when I open the cabinet it hits me.

Interesting! I have never heard of this particular spice before, although I may have already eaten it at an Indian restaurant. As to the "pungent" part, it's already in the name:

> The English name is derived from asa, a latinised form of Persian azā, meaning "resin", and Latin foetidus meaning "smelling, fetid", which refers to its strong sulfurous odour

The German names are even less flattering:

> Asant (Ferula assa-foetida), auch bekannt als Stinkasant oder Teufelsdreck - "stinking asant" or "devil's dirt"...

I only learned about it when attempting to cook Indian food via YouTube recipes. A game changer!

I keep my bottle of hing in another bottle.

An ad hominem side note: the author should try probiotics

They've had serious digestive problems since they were three years old and appear extremely well educated. They almost certainly have tried probiotics.

Curry is curry due to it containing tumeric, and tumeric is native to India.


You may as well say curry is curry because it has cumin in it, and cumin is native to India. Curry is really just a word made up by non-Indians to describe spicy gravy, or depending on who you ask, it can be used to describe any sufficiently spiced food. If you google curry potatoes, you’ll find plenty of recipes. If you google jeera aloo (which literally just translates to cumin potato) you’ll find plenty of very similar recipes. You can also find plenty of recipes for Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian... curries, and the only thing they have in common with Indian curries is use of spice and a gravy textured sauce, but using completely different spice bases and cooking techniques.

Not so. It's named after the Tamil word kari which means a dish eaten with rice and flavored with curry leaves (kari patta).

Ginger and turmeric look very similar. It seems that ginger came from south-east Asia. https://www.motherearthliving.com/natural-health/know-your-s...

Interesting that it was not mentioned in the older recipes in the article.

yes, i think it is not used so much in other Asian cuisines

I've spent about 3 years in India, through a combination of work and family, and rarely see anything called "curry" on menus. Part of what this author seems to be getting at is that "curry" reflects a colonial viewpoint that homogenizes groups outsite the west. Thus, Indians, Thais and Japanese food has "curries" (even though these curries are very different from one another). In contrast Hungarians have "Goulash."

It's rather trite to go on about how the word "curry" is a crude term that glosses over the rich variety of regional cuisines between and within various countries. Anyone who wants to engage in oneupmanship know-it-all will stress its inauthenticity.

Yet it is a useful term - as someone else has mentioned - to refer to meat/veg in spicy gravy sauce associated with certain countries. Just because it's a word developed outside of India doesn't mean it isn't meaningful.

Note though that the Japanese call their curry カレー ("karee"), and adopted it via the British, so it's not appropriate to call its name a colonial viewpoint.

The Japanese Navy apparently acquired a "curry" tradition from the British Royal Navy


NB Jared Diamond's book Upheaval mentions how Japan reacted to a crisis in the 19th century by going out and seeking the best sources to copy - for naval matters that happened to be the Royal Navy and curry came with that:


> Japan reacted to a crisis in the 19th century by going out and seeking the best sources to copy

That would be the Meiji Restoration, where the Japanese decided they were tired of being kicked around and were going to reform and westernize on their terms.

They chose to model their Navy off of the British, and their Army off of the Prussians (though in both cases they ended up with advisors from all over the place, like the US and Italy).

No evidence that they copied the British tradition for Pussers and regular rum rations.

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_Restoration and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rum_ration

idk. in Thai, the name for each curry is literally the color or flavor of the curry plus the word "curry", like how we (Europeans and Americans) mostly do with sandwiches and soups. This is self-inflicted but I hesitate to use that word as it overstates the graveness.

The Thai word is แกง kaeng, which is etymologically unrelated to English or Tamil, and encompasses a range of dishes varying from what we'd call curries (the famous red, green etc) to distinctly soup-like dishes like kaeng khae.


To say it’s colonial is a bit of a stretch. It’s simply a word chosen by a group of outsiders to categorize something they didn’t know much about.

The more relevant criticism of the word boils down to the facts that it doesn’t really mean anything to Indians, and that it’s meaning is so poorly defined that it barely means anything at all. The word can be used to refer to pretty much any Indian food, which is simply a poor categorization, and that use would wind up a lot of Indian people. The other use case is pretty much anything that has a spiced gravy. But a ragu uses spiced gravy as much as a butter chicken does, and most people wouldn’t call a ragu a curry. So it must be a spiced gravey with Asian ingredients, but a Japanese curry has more ingredients in common with a ragu than it does a saag paneer, also a lamb tagine dish uses a spiced gravy with Asian ingredients, and people wouldn’t call that a curry either.

Basically it’s a word that has no definition that would describe all of its different use cases.

Hmm, what makes for a meaningful broad food category word?

Dumplings range from pierogies to xiaolongbao, sandwiches include monte cristos and cheesesteaks and fluffernutters, soup includes vichyssoise and miso and samgyetang.

Why do those words work, if they do?

Stepping sideways a bit... in New Delhi, menu names shift in a subtle way with the prominence of vegetarianism. In the UK or US, you might order a dish like "chicken with seasonal vegetables." In Delhi it's often reversed, they'll specify the exact meatless dish, Malai Kofta or Palak Paneer, but just say the side dish is "non-veg" without specifying whatever meat. That slight shift in emphasis really underscores the endless variety of things you can eat beyond meat, it makes plain how the generic Western conception of a meal through classic French courses can be incredibly narrow. However we ultimately come down on "curry," emphasizing meatless dishes seems like an example of food language that probably should have been heavily exported and hungrily adopted by the rest of the world. Even if you're not a vegetarian, treating meatless dishes as first-class citizens seems to add enormous diversity to any cuisine, and a ton more satisfaction in the eating.

> To say it’s colonial is a bit of a stretch. It’s simply a word chosen by a group of outsiders to categorize something they didn’t know much about.

A group of British outsiders who were in India because of the British Empire?

As some one said about English "We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary"

There are a lot of words borrowed from India still in use to this day squaddie for example being derived from 'swaddy' a type on Indian soldier

Yes. Hobson Jobson has a large dictionary of these words: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18796493

James Nicoll is the source of your quote.

There’s absolutely nothing uniquely colonial about coming up with words to describe things that are new to you. It’s simply a result of one culture coming into contact with another. To say using language to describe new things is colonial is frankly ridiculous.

But it brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the sturm und drang of everyday life for the hoi polloi.

Yes, but its a whole new vein of offence to be mined.

You're trying to say that colonisers, living in the colony, corrupting and simplifying the local language because it's too hard for them to bother learning, is somehow not colonial.

> To say using language to describe new things is colonial is frankly ridiculous.

They took a wide range of food, with very different characteristics, representing huge geographical and cultural spread, and reduced all of that to an anglicised word "curry".

I'll just quote Wikipedia:

"Curry is an anglicised form of the Tamil word kaṟi meaning 'sauce' or 'relish for rice' that uses the leaves of the curry tree (Murraya koenigii)."

Interesting to see the list of English words of Indian origin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_India...

"Curry" is used by Indians to describe freshly-made solid-ish vegetable/meat dishes that are always eaten with rice or flat breads like roti and parathas. They aren't eaten by themselves. They are also meant to be eaten hot. It's important that the "main event" is the carbs, with the curry accompanying them. This is both a broad and narrow definition. It's broad because you can make a curry out of any vegetable and any meat, with practically any spices. It's narrow because it has to solid-ish and be eaten with rice or flat breads. A soup like sambar or rasam mixed with rice isn't considered a curry, but it's not a soup per most people's standards either. A soup isn't a curry because it's not primarily eaten with rice or flat breads. A pickle isn't a curry because it might take months to be prepared; it's not meant to be eaten fresh. A mango chutney is not a curry because it's not meant to be eaten hot. (Note that the Indian definitions of "pickle" and "chutney" vary from the American/British usages. In India, a "pickle" is a preserved fruit/vegetable/meat in oil, chili powder, and other spices. A "chutney" is a freshly-made dish of diced fruits/veggies, often reduced to a paste with a blender.)

This is a sort of definition that's intuitive to Indians.

The problem Indians have with foreign usages of "curry" are, I think, with them not respecting this definition, and using the word to refer to pretty much all Indian food. "Going to get some curry" sounds like you don't care about even the basic differences in the cuisine you're eating. That all said, I understand that I'm undermining my own argument. It's rather subtle to tell a curry apart from another Indian dish.

Indian people eat plenty of things aside from rice/roti + curries. You have kebabs, biryanis (rice baked with meats), sandwiches (from Vada Pav street food to everything else), noodles (Indo-Chinese cuisine), a million buttery, saccharine sweets, unique breakfast foods like dosas and idlis, and so so much more. How can you have a country the size of India with at least 20 major cuisines and languages, in a country with influences from East Africa, Central Asia, Tibet, South East Asia, and Western Europe, without tremendous culinary diversity?

Well, if you're talking about cultural homogenization, the curry-like thick stew you call "goulash" is actually pörkölt in Hungary. The original gulyas is a paprika-flavored soup, and it's considered an entirely different dish (eaten with a spoon instead of a fork etc).

Japanese-style curry is more or less a Meiji-era British import and wasn’t popular within Japan until the 1960s. For that matter the British weren’t one to homogenize groups; they made extensive investigations of the local cultures and power dynamics in new lands they explored, rejiggered the power structure to suit their preferences, standardized this totem pole and put themselves on top. Racist, but definitely not lazy about it.

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