When one thinks of a curry, often perhaps one specific dish comes to mind, maybe an Indian lamb jalfrezi or Thai green curry? But when you start to dig a bit deeper, you begin to see that the curry is an incredibly diverse and complex thing, the term covers an immense range of dishes from countries from all over the world.
The only real definition, and there are many, that truly describes the overarching principles of a curry is; a dish cooked in a sauce that contains a variety of spices.
Yet this is rather inadequate when it comes to examining what the world’s curries have to offer. These dishes originated from the Indian sub-continent, but have evolved over decades, even centuries, to become such disparate and varied culinary concoctions. There are regional variations throughout one country, let alone one continent, and each place has its own unique take on the curry, and this is even not exclusive to Asia: versions of curry specific to places in Europe have evolved from the Euro-Indian subcultures there.
A truly delicious curry is a culinary pleasure, and something that is hard to achieve, we could never fully explore the complexities of the curry in one article, however below are some highlights of Asia’s curry culture, just to whet your appetite.
When one looks at Indian curry culture, one is initially struck by how rich and varied it is. In India alone, there are a multitude of regions, each with their own different subcultures, and these variations in culture are reflected within their differing cuisines. It would be entirely reductive to try to explore the Indian curry as one definitive term, and proffer some kind of entire, perfect recipe. Instead below we will be exploring some of the regions and giving an insight into some of the practices found there: however before we start it is useful to note that there are some overarching principles. Generally in India curries are eaten with steamed rice and various breads (such as naan, chapati or poppadom) and are characterised by a heady use of spices.
Punjab (Northern India): most Punjab curries are prepared by using tadka, this is made by the cooking of a masala, which is a mix of ginger, onions, tomatoes, garlic and dried spices, including cumin, mustard seeds and chillies. Once this has been created other ingredients follow, namely water, and then either meats or vegetables, and sometimes milk, or more chillies for those who fancy it very spicy. Two of the most well known Punjabi curries are butter chicken and rajma.
Goa (Southern India): the Goan curry, or vindaloo, has international repute, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, as a spicy dish of lamb or chicken, and potatoes. However this is a far cry from the original Goan curries, the two major ingredients, of which curry takes its name (derived from Portuguese), are wine and garlic, and it was traditionally made with pork: the potatoes were a later Indian addition.
The Thai curry, called kaeng, is a varied and vibrant dish that forms a key part of Thai food culture; these dishes differ greatly throughout the country, however there are some universal key ingredients. These curries are often centred on a vegetable, meat or fish, that is cooked in a sauce that is made from a paste. The key ingredients of this paste tend to be some variation that includes chillies, garlic, shrimp paste, onions and shallots. A key difference between the north and south of Thailand is that central and southern regions tend to include coconut milk in many of their dishes, which is not generally seen in authentic northern dishes.
An example of an internationally renowned Thai curry is the yellow curry, or kaeng kari; a Thai-Muslim dish, that is rich and creamy in texture, thanks to the use of coconut cream as well as coconut milk. Other ingredients (external to those mentioned above) include coriander, fenugreek, lemongrass, cayenne pepper and cinnamon. Another variant of this dish is kaeng lueang, or kaeng som, meaning sour curry, a sharper, spicier version of the better known yellow curry.
Another example of the Thai curry is the panaeng curry; this is a generally milder dish that has a strong coconut taste: as coconut milk is one of the major ingredients. Other ingredients include fish sauce, peanuts, coriander root, kaffir lime leaves and meat that is cut into thin strips (tofu can also be used instead of meat).
Malaysia’s cuisine is highly influenced by geo-political factors; well-positioned in trade routes of bygone eras, many countries have quite plainly left their mark on Malaysia’s food culture. In terms of Malaysian curries, although the concept may have initially come from its Indian neighbours, it evolved with a heavy Chinese influence that can also now be seen quite clearly. Once again, as with all countries we have discussed here, regional variations are apparent, however there are some basic principles which resound throughout the country.
Staple spice ingredients of Malaysian curries include ginger, shallots, belacan (shrimp paste), turmeric, coconut milk, chilli peppers, garlic and tamarind. These curries can also contain all sorts of meats, fish and vegetables, particularly shrimp, cuttlefish, chicken, mutton, aubergine and eggs. The Malaysian rendang is probably the most famous Malaysian curry (although there are variants of this dish created by many southeast Asian nations), and is a rich, drier, mildly spicy, typically beef, dish.
Some Top Curry-Houses
There are far too many delicious dishes to have named them all in one place, however we imagine your tummy must be rumbling after reading the above, so here are a few specific suggestions from us, of places you won’t want to miss on a culinary tour of Asia’s curry-houses.
- The Rock Restaurant and Bar, in Bangkok, serves up seriously delicious authentic Thai treats, we highly recommend you check them out if you’re in the Thai capital, and if you’re there the crab curry is particularly divine! Check out their Facebook page for opening times and location details: https://www.facebook.com/rockrestaurantandbar
- For a great meal for a reasonable price, Bijan Bar & Restuarant in Kuala Lumpur creates culinary delights served within a fantastic setting and ambience. Their rendang kambing is particularly praiseworthy, however everything on the menu is sure to tantalise your tastebuds, and the service is unbeatable. Check out their website for more details: http://www.bijanrestaurant.com
- If you’re in New Delhi and looking for a bite to eat, you really must go to Dum Pukht; this restaurant is a must-stop on any discerning gourmet’s traveller’s checklist. We would especially suggest that you try the biryani, simply perfect! Check out their website for more details: http://www.itchotels.in/hotels/itcmaurya/dum-pukht-restaurant.aspx