‘Curry’… what does the controversial term mean to Indian food-lovers?

Ashish Bhatia Turban Street Cake dahi murgh khade masala chicken with yogurt and wholse spices curry recipe

However chilli-laden, a ‘curry’ could not be as hot as the controversy that the word itself courts. ‘The noun is not known in the subcontinent!’ many indignantly claim. ‘But it merely and handily describes the food of India that we’ve come to love so!’ claim the defendants. ‘We’re not being nasty; in fact we think it’s very nice’.

‘Ufff,’ think those whose skin crawls at every cry of ‘curry’. ‘And WE think YOU are nice-but-dim. If I apply that same limited logic to British food, can I call it all gravy?’

And so it continues… the ultimate definition endlessly debated and ruminated, yet never resolved. The use of the word ‘curry’ is common, but two people – let alone the many cultures that make Britain brilliant – rarely interpret it to hold the same meaning. Harmless? Lazy? Affectionate? Offensive? Something to crave from a takeaway, or a term that’s should be taken off the menu completely?

As I discovered when I did a vox pop on ‘curry’ comprehension, it can be all those and more…

Gautham Karthik

Gautham Kartick Proprietor and head chef Gautham Iyer, Iyer's Cafe, Popes Quay, Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

In a traditional Brahmin kitchen, the term ‘curry’ is not used to describe any of our dishes – mainly as it often denotes meat. I find the word ambiguous to say the very least. Being Tamilian, we use ‘kari’ colloquially as a suffix to mean a vegetarian or meat side dish – though technically ‘kari’ is reserved for ‘wet’ dishes, and dry dishes are termed ‘poriyal’.

The use of ‘curry’ to describe any spicy dish could be largely due to the ‘Punjabification’ of the majority of Indian cuisine available in the UK. The rich, powerful flavours involved could be compared to pop music; straightforward and easy to like. I love this food for what it is, but its popularity has all but wiped out innumerable dishes from other Indian kitchens which take a different approach.

Sadly, this has had a brutal effect on the diversity of Indian food. There is such a mishmash of cooking now, where everything is a ‘curry’ – with the classic, heavy tomato-onion base. I might say that different cooking styles and preparation methods have been painted over with a tandoori brush! The blanket term ‘curry’ seems, really, to stem from a lack of understanding.

  • Gautham is the chef-patron of Iyer’s –  a Cork-based cafe where he introduces the Irish to pure veg South Indian cuisine.

Dan Toombs

Dan Tooms The Curry Guy

For me the word ‘curry’ is a great word for describing both saucy and dry dishes with South Asian origins. The British-invented term does an excellent job of helping promote the food of many different countries and regions, and is now recognised around the world. If someone suggests going out for a ‘curry’, everyone knows what is on offer, regardless of what they end up ordering.

I have been criticised for giving English names to the curry recipes I develop for my blog. I wouldn’t know what else to call them, although I’m sure I would use the traditional name of a dish if I ever find myself somewhere in South Asia. For the most part I leave the authentic names to those who understand the language.

Using the word ‘curry’ makes marketing sense. English-speaking people are much more likely to type ‘butter chicken curry recipe’ into Google than they are ‘murgh makhani recipe’. In the UK, ‘curry’ works – but I think it’s nice that many dishes no longer need the term attached in order for people to understand what they are.

  • Dan is ‘The Curry Guy‘ – a man on a mission, via his website and e-books, to bring British Indian restaurant dishes to the masses.

Asma Khan

Asma Khan Darjeeling Express seated

While I lived in India before I married and moved to Britain, the word ‘curry’ was not used a lot at home, although one of my Bihari grandmother’s dishes did take that name. In a restaurant it would be rare for a dish to be described as a ‘curry’, although this may have changed now. It has been a long time since I have eaten at an Indian restaurant in India!

The word really became ‘an issue’ for me after I moved to the UK – I was surprised to see an entire cuisine being lumped together under a generic name.

  • Asma owns Darjeeling Express – which brings Calcutta dining to London through supperclubs and pop-ups.

Anjali Pathak

Anjali Pathak Indian chef, Pataks

I don’t have strong feelings towards the word ‘curry‘ either way. It is a very generic term that holds very different meanings to many cultures. Growing up eating Indian food meant I ate so-called ‘curries‘ regularly, which in truth were saucy masalas full of aromatic spices, but I never get too hung up on names when it comes to food.

If it tastes great, and is made with love, I don’t really mind if you call it ‘curry’ or ‘masala’!

  • Anjali is a professional chef, tutor, and food writer/blogger – and part of the legendary dynasty behind the Patak’s company.

Mehrunnisa Yusuf

Mehrunnisa Yusuf Come Con Ella

I have to confess that the term ‘curry’ has always bewildered me. I associate it with books on the British Raj. When I moved to London, my English friends all loved eating ‘curry’; which for them was basically a dish composed of vegetables or meat in a maroon-coloured sauce that was flavoured with what they thought of as ‘Asian spices’  – cumin, coriander and red chillies.

Conversely, my own ‘curry’ associations concern Thai food, as the first time I encountered a dish so-called was a Thai green curry. Now, if I were asked to describe what curry means to me, it would be ‘a mixed spice of South Asian aspirations’.

  • Mehrunnisa the founder of food blog ‘Come Con Ella‘. Her food heritage is a fascinating mixture of Polish and Pakistani.

 Euan Sey

Euan Sey Curry Leaf Cafe

‘Curry’ means adventure. Before trying my first ‘curry’, aged 4, I was considered an insufferably picky eater. The first time I entered The Last Viceroy in Bourne End (still there nearly 35 years on), my inherent mistrust of unfamiliar foods was washed away by the colourful attire and warm smiles worn by the waitstaff, the wondrously alien landscapes depictured on the walls, and the intense aromas emanating from the kitchen. It was like stepping into the looking glass… the usual rules didn’t apply.

‘Curry’ means sharing. Before I knew of tapas, I associated ‘sharing’ with ‘curry’. At home my family would hunch over our plates like latter-day Oliver Twists, but at the Indian restaurant, we had to share. We’d all stick our forks into each other’s plates without a thought. For reasons I can’t explain, the same didn’t apply to other cuisines. Maybe it’s just a ‘curry thing’; given how integral a role sharing plays in Indian culture.

‘Curry’ means craving. There are times when nothing else will do. An itch that must be scratched. I can’t think of any other kind of dish that inspires a deep, carnal craving of this kind. And I can’t pretend that the ability to satisfy this craving at will didn’t play a part in my decision to open my own Indian restaurant!

Cyrus Todiwala

Cyrus Todiwala Assado

The word ‘curry’ has been the bane of my life ever since I came to London. When I arrived I was so confused that I had to kick myself to not fall foul of it myself and end up thinking of all Indian food as ‘curry’. To me at least, the term comes form the South Indian word ‘kari’ – meaning ‘in a lot of sauce’. For us coastal Indians, it also simply means ‘cooked with coconut milk’.

Growing up, I’d hover around mum on the weekends, when the masala was freshly-roasted with coconut and the the other ingredients.That was curry – and we do use the word on the menu at Cafe Spice Namaste and our other venues, as we prepare dishes like Goa curry, Leeli curry and Malay curry. But all other types of dish have their own names just as in any other cuisine in the world. Indian food is no different.

Curry in various forms appears across Asia – Thai red, yellow and green curries; Malay and Indonesian dishes like rendang, kari, laksa; Burmese khao sway… But the Brits never say ‘going for a ‘curry” except when they go to South Asian restaurants. For some reason, to appease our British friends, we accept with grace the word ‘curry’ as an officiating term for all Indian food. It is denigrating and rather an insult to a finely-honed cuisine whose roots go at least two thousand years deeper than Western cuisines.

The Oxford Dictionary says ‘curry’ is a combination of spices…which means nothing. I have now given up, and only say my bit on the over-simple term ‘curry’ to people who are interested; as it just makes my mission to raise Indian food to its deserved status longer and more tedious.

Kalyan Karmakar

Kalyan Karmakar

For a long while, curry meant ‘gravy’ to me. Now I feel that it’s a superficial summation of the richness of Indian food by the British world: an approximation that does this great culinary heritage disservice.
  • Kalyan writes under the moniker of ‘Finely Chopped‘. He is one of Mumbai’s best-loved food bloggers and is also famed for leading foodwalks of the city. 

Mamta Gupta

Mamta Gupta

‘Curry’ – now there is a term I had not heard of until I moved to UK in 1969! In India, we called everything with the name of the main ingredient and often the way it was prepared. ‘Curry’ confused me in the early days. Was it a dish with a yellow/orange coloured, spicy, onion, tomato based sauce/gravy; or was it anything at all that had curry powder in it?

Then I realised that to an average Brit, anything with spices or Indian flavour is a ‘curry’, whether it is with or without sauce. Privately, I still don’t call anything ‘curry’, but use the dish’s specific name. When I make a ‘dry’ vegetable bhaji, I know that my British friends will more than likely call it a ‘curry’, though to me it is not.

When I say the word ‘curry’, it brings a picture of a dish with ‘curry sauce’ or gravy to my mind, rather than anything cooked with curry powder. I have now adopted the word ‘curry’ for many dishes on my website  for ease, so that people easily understand what a dish is; though I still give the dishes original name where possible.

  • Mamta’s website, Mamta’s Kitchen, is an amazingly comprehensive database of original and crowd-sourced recipes embracing all cuisines. 

Kavita Favelle

Kavita Favelle, Kavey Eats

I am not incensed by the use of the term ‘curry‘, though some people do seem to find it offensive. Yes, we all know that Indian and other Asian cuisines are vast and varied with many thousands of different dishes, none of which are actually called ‘curry‘ (though the Indian dish ‘kadhi’ comes pretty close, on a purely phonetic level). But in today’s multicultural Britain, I feel that ‘curry‘ is simply used as a shorthand for an Asian-spiced dish, usually one with sauce rather than a stir-fried or baked recipe.

Personally, I find ‘curry‘ useful as an umbrella term; it allows me to convey very quickly a broad-brush understanding of the style of a dish (especially when combined with a country prefix such as Thai, Indian or Japanese), before going on to describe it more specifically. Language evolves constantly; that applies just as much to the world of food as to anything else.

Once upon a time ‘curry‘ may have dismissed an entire region’s cuisine as a single dish, but, as far as I’m concerned, we’ve moved past that.

  • Kavita is founder and editor of KaveyEats.com – and daughter of Mamta Gupta.

Ashish Bhatia

Ashish Bhatia Turban Street Cafe

I am not offended by the term ‘curry’. Some say that the word derives from ‘kari’, and others that it was coined by the British to universally define Indian main course dishes. With India’s 29 states and 7 union territories, coupled with diversity in religion, culture, languages and beliefs, one can only imagine how many unique dishes must exist – and we unfortunately only hear about the handful that have gained popularity in recent years.

Because of India’s complex nature, it becomes impossible for the rest of the world to relate to every dish. After studying Indian food consistently as a chef for the past 12 years, I am still learning new things every day. In my experience, the British use of ‘curry’ is just as a generic term for a dish cooked primarily with spicy sauce.

However, things have changed a lot in the past 5 years, with education occurring via specialist blogs, books, television shows and social media. I don’t think that the word ‘curry’ is controversial or offensive at all –  but I do object to the way in which authentic Indian dishes are chopped, changed and murdered every day.

As the saying goes, ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’; but calling a cactus a rose just because it has thorns as well doesn’t mean that a cactus comes anywhere near to the rose! I think that chefs and promoters of this great cuisine should afford less time and effort to cribbing about terminology and more to bringing authentic recipes to the table; educating and enlightening as we do so.

Perzen Patel

Perzen Patel Bawi BrideWhile the popular conception of a ‘curry’ to non-Indians is any sort of dish which has some kind of gravy and spice, to me a ‘curry’ can only assume that name when it is made with some form of coconut – fresh, desiccated, or coconut milk.  Any other gravy dishes have their own unique names to identify them; such as butter chicken, chettinad, dal and so on; and should not ideally be referred to merely as a ‘curry’.

  • Perzen is also known as Mumbai’s ‘Bawi Bride‘ –  a  food blogger, cook, and traveller; and irrepressible sharer of Parsi bhonu.

Danny Kingston

Danny Kingston Food Urchin

I would say that my thoughts on ‘curry’ (or at least the meaning of the word ‘curry’) have certainly evolved with time. When I was younger, it was closely associated with terror. Largely because way back when, my mother didn’t really have a clue how to make it. I don’t remember much but I do remember searing heat, drinking milk and eating cubes of sugar as a result of her ‘curries’. She is much better now but back in the day, Christ they were hot.

Which is interesting, because the second stage of my ‘path towards ‘curry” was all about chilli. The Friday night feasts of my young adulthood; the post-pub curryhouse trip; the goading as we used to order the hottest dishes that we could endure. Madras, vindaloo, the dreaded phall; the pain and the awful repercussions the next day. Idiot stuff.

And now I’ve moved on to the ‘third stage’, where ‘curry’ feels like a new adventure. The first two steps were firmly planted within a white, East London/Essex working class culture that had no real understanding of Indian food. Please note, I am loathe to use the word ‘ignorance’, but perhaps some of that did go into the mix too.

It does feel like I have moved on a lot over the years, and have built a genuine curiosity about ‘curry’ – or maybe I should say ‘Indian food’ or ‘food of the subcontinent’. Maybe I should go further, and mention different cuisines, specific regions and methods of cooking, but to be really honest, I am still not entirely confident in my knowledge. So for the time being, I would probably still settle on ‘curry’ a lot of the time. Sure, I can see that it can be perceived as glib, shortsighted and inadequate, but for me, it is still a catch-all word.

 Stay tuned for a selection of recipes foodies feel most closely fits their definition of ‘curry’.

What does the term ‘curry’ call to mind for YOU? Please do leave thoughts below…

  • Why do so many people claim to crave ‘curry’? For the science bit, click here.
  • For the strangest selection of ‘curry-flavoured’ products on British shop shelves, click here.
  • To read about #CurryforChange, the charity campaign using Indian food to help the hungry, click here.
  • The ‘Damn Good Curry‘ supperclub uses the term humorously but serves seriously good Indian food. Click here.

Main image Ashish Bhatia chicken curry


11 responses to “‘Curry’… what does the controversial term mean to Indian food-lovers?

  1. While growing up, curry only meant a particular type of Indian dish. I didn’t realize the global ramnifications of this word till I reached Australia where Indian food at large was ‘currified’. It angered me to say the least but then I took it upon me to bring about a change when and where I can, albeit in a very small way.


  2. Great article Zoe. I tend to associate curry with meat/fish/veg in some sort of sauce, albeit a small sauce – it certainly doesn’t need to be swimming in sauce like the curries that were dished up when I was growing up – in the 70/80’s (gulp). I realise the term ‘curry’ was coined by the Brits, but I don’t think anyone needs to take offence by the word ‘curry’. Anyone interested in the Indian sub continent/Asian cuisine will soon learn about the limitless amount of dishes on offer and that they cannot be pigeon holed into the broad brush term of ‘curry’. All this curry chat is making me hungry. Could really do with a ‘Laal Maas’ now ;o)


  3. Pingback: Indian recipes that could be called ‘curry’ and would be called delicious | Culinary Adventures of The Spice Scribe·

  4. Pingback: Indian pop-ups and performances in London: April | Culinary Adventures of The Spice Scribe·

  5. Pingback: Awesome appams and cracking Keralite food in East Ham | Culinary Adventures of The Spice Scribe·

  6. Pingback: Flavour Diaries: Anjali Pathak’s mouthwatering Mumbai cookery school | Culinary Adventures of The Spice Scribe·

  7. Pingback: Superhot: Indian restaurants with dishes to kill the chill | Culinary Adventures of The Spice Scribe·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s