Exactly what Is a Curry? Guest Blogger Raghavan Iyer spills all!

From   |  September 28, 2009
In Book Scoop, Guest Blogger
Featured Recipe: Raghavan Iyer's Shrimp with Peanut-Garlic Sauce

Raghavan Iyer's Shrimp with Peanut-Garlic Sauce

Guest Blogger Raghavan Iyer says:

Before I try to define the word curry, let me create an image for you from my college days in India, when I was pursuing that in chemistry. As I busied myself in the laboratory, I happened to knock a mercury thermometer onto the tile floor. Microscopic pieces of glass and droplets of liquid mercury dispersed, and I tried to pick up the pieces. The glass was easy, but not the mercury. The shining, silvery liquid was elusive (not to mention dangerous) and defied containment and form (we had no mercury spill kits back then). It moved freely with even the slightest nudge and affected everything it touched. Which brings me back to the task at hand: Defining curry is like trying to grasp liquid mercury and gather it into a neat pile.

It should come as no surprise to you (or maybe it does) that the word “curry” itself is unknown in the Indian vocabulary. It doesn’t appear in any of India’s twenty-three officially recognized languages and sixteen hundred dialects. Words like kari and kadhi refer to sauce-based or gravy-laden dishes that existed in India well before the Aryans got there – and with a civilization that spans 6,000 years, you can well imagine their longevity.

In England and the rest of the world, “curry” is the catchall word for anything Indian that is mottled with hot spices, with or without a sauce, and “curry powder” is the blend that delivers it. In keeping with my culture, I define a curry as any dish that consists of either meat, fish, poultry, legumes, vegetables, or fruits, simmered in or covered with a sauce, gravy, or other liquid that is redolent with spices and/or herbs. In my India, curry is never added – it just is!

To make it easier to comprehend the constitution of curries, I stripped it down into the seven Asian taste elements of sour, salty, sweet, hot, umami, bitter, and astringent and added an aromatic component to comprise a flavor profile (chef mumbo jumbo). To put it into perspective, all the ingredients we use (spices, legumes, meats, vegetables, dairy, herbs) to compose a curry falls neatly into one of those categories – but that neatness loses its clarity when you apply cooking techniques to them, changing their up-front quality to one that jumps taste boundaries. In other words, curries and their flavors are dynamic.

Here is a simple curry that is complex-tasting without being cumbersome to make.

Raghavan Iyer is the author of three cookbooks. His latest is "660 Curries" (Workman Publishing). To find out more about Raghavan Iyer, click here.

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Related Recipes

Raghavan Iyer's Shrimp with Peanut-Garlic Sauce

Raghavan Iyer's Shrimp with Peanut-Garlic Sauce

September 03, 2009

The word “curry” is unknown in the Indian vocabulary, says cookbook author Ragavan Iyer. “In my India, curry is never added – it just IS!” And his Shrimp Curry IS fabulous!

Read full recipe.