What is a curry, exactly?
The weather has been awful (wet, cold, windy, all at once) so I have been craving more warming curries recently...
But what is a curry exactly?
The origins of curry are complicated and ambiguous. Historian Lizzie Collingham, in her delightful book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, says that the word curry was first described by the Portuguese in the mid 17th century. Centuries later, curry still eludes any concrete definition. It is a leaf, a spice, a dish, a process, a sauce of mixed ingredients used to make up a meat, fish or vegetable dish. It is a fairy tale invented by colonists to describe the rich variety of food they found in India and which defied being put into neat little boxes of culinary labels.
Along trade routes and colonies, the curry concept spread and adapted easily, and now there is a dazzling array of types of curries, from all kinds of countries and a mind-blowing number of recipes out there. Not surprisingly, it can be quite confusing when looking at all the countless curry recipes... and you might be tempted to think that it's either too complicated or too simplistic (is a curry always a curry?)
But if we have a closer look to try and pinpoint the concepts and templates used in 'curry' dishes, it turns out they can be really easy and really adaptable meal options in your repertory.
All curries share certain similarities, and no, it's not curry powder.
In fact, I think the creeping take-over of generic curry powder is what has turned this ever so versatile and variable dish into a bit of a samey-tasting bore.
The thing is, if you have ever made a curry from scratch, blending the spices yourself and not using a ready made powder you'll find that there is no generic 'curry' taste. What is typical for a curry is the very complex, flavourful, sometimes pungent taste explosion which results from the simple fact that the base of the dish is a sauce with lots of spices. But because you can forever vary the spice selection as well as the components of the sauce (not to mention the main ingredients) curries are super versatile and forever variable. You could easily make a different 'curry' every weekday without any repetition of flavours.
I'm now going to attempt a massive simplification, in order to make the 'concept' of curry more 'digestible' (authenticity police please look the other way now):
Curry flavours can be broadly separated into the South Asian style (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc) and the South East Asian style (Thai, Sri Lankan). The former is more earthy and using predominantly dried spices, the latter is more fragrant as more fresh ingredients are used. Some Asian countries combine both styles due to influences from both directions (e.g. Malaysia, Indonesia). Many regions along the Indian Ocean trade routes have their own curry styles too (from Madagascar to Jamaica and everything in between).
What all curries share is that they are basically a spicy sauce in which the 'main' ingredients are cooked. These can be anything really: meat, fish, lentils or chickpeas, all kinds of vegetables from the chunky to the leafy, plus tofu, tempeh and the like. Hard boiled eggs are often used in curries too! Yes, some ingredients may be more authentic in one context than another, but really anything goes: chana dhal (chickpea curry) may be common in India, but who says you can't make a Thai style chickpea curry (go on, google it!)
Curries are often cooked long and slow (and are therefore ideal for cheap cuts of meat), but you can just as well make fast and light curries - especially if you have made your spice blend or spice paste in a larger batch (or if you use a ready-made shortcut - of course you can!). Fast sauces will taste fresher, slow sauces will taste deeper. Choose your main ingredients accordingly (potatoes, carrots and chunky meat takes well to slow cooking, fish and leafy veggies less so). You can also cook the sauce on its own and add more delicate ingredients towards the end.
Don't forget the top layer to balance flavours and add a bit of extra colour or texture: a swirl of yoghurt or coconut milk, a topping of toasted coconut flakes or fried chillies, a spoonful of hot pickle, a handful of fresh herbs, a squeeze of lime juice or a dash of soy sauce.
Last but not least: extra time allows better fusing of all the flavours - this is why a curry tastes even better the next day. An ideal meal to cook in larger batches to re-heat or to freeze.
Below I have tried to put the different building blocks into a table (not a fancy one, but it's a start!)
I hope it makes sense - I would love to hear your feedback on how useful this is (or not). Please keep in mind this is highly simplified, and by no means trying to be 'authentic'.
I hope it will give you a reference point, whether you want to improvise straight off the bat or whether you want to look up some recipes to simplify along the lines of the blocks below.