The Length and Breadth of Indian Curry

By Tasneem Rajkotwala

“Having a curry for breakfast is a thing of beauty.” said British comedian Romesh Ranganathana. For someone who has grown up and lived most of her life in India, before moving to the Middle East 9 years ago, I cannot agree more. I’ve been blessed to enjoy a wide range of local cuisines across India and it is my love of curry that drives me to follow its journey

Rassa (or curry) originated in India approximately 4000 years ago. It was made by combining a medley of spices with other ingredients,to be eaten with either chapatis or rice. Each region had its own way of making rassa since the spices available in each region were different with distinct flavour profiles.

Curry is an Anglo-Indian word – an anglicized version of the Tamil word “Kari” (which means sauce) and historically introduced by the British to describe a variety of spicy dishes from India and South Asia. Curry powder as we know it is a British invention that dates back to the 18th Century and although it looks like just one spice, curry powder is a blend of various Asian spices.

The cooking of many Indian curries begins by sautéing onion, ginger and garlic. The base is then flavoured with freshly ground spice mixes like fennel, cumin, coriander, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric etc. It also makes ample use of curry leaves, from the fragrant Murraya koenigii tree, which gives Indian curries their peculiar flavour. Fresh coriander is commonly added at the conclusion of the dish to bring out a fresh taste. In a huge melting pot of culture that the country is, the curries of India are as diverse and regionally specific as its population. These cuisines are heavily influenced by the country’s history, religious practices, and cultural perseverance. Although the base of a curry would remain similar, each region has a unique method of making one and this can be divided into dry and wet type, according to the amount of sauce created.

A little background on the commonalities and differences between Indian curries from different parts of the sub-continent can turn your next Indian meal into an exciting and intense adventure. Let’s take a journey through the regional curries of India

South India

There’s no denying that  people in South India loves their rice and their meals are generally accompanied by hearty stews that are extremely aromatic and have a mild pungent flavour. South Indian cuisine is comprised of the five southern states of India – Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The similarities among the curries from these different states include the varied range of spices widely available in this region like cardamom, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon and a tempering of primary ingredients like mustard seeds, red chillies and curry leaves among others. As with the rest of the country, there are large regional differences and each state’s curry also has many variations.

Sambar, Rasam and Koottu are three common stew-like curries from this region, each differing in their primary ingredients and the thickness of the sauce. Sambar is an essentially tamarind flavoured pea lentil curry cooked with variety of vegetables that is more diluted than curries found in the sub-continent, but thicker than a Rasam which is more similar to soup and is primarily cooked by combining tomatoes, tamarind and multiple spices. Kootu, on the other hand, is creamy but is unlike the dairy based curries from North India, as it is cooked by mashing down boiled lentils and highlights one single vegetable.

West India

Historical and geographical domain distinguishes Western India into three main regions – Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat, which highly influences the flavours and cooking methods of a curry coming from this part of the sub-continent. The coastal location of Maharashtra and Goa finds it dominant with seafood and coconut milk curries whilst the influence of Jain culture makes Gujarat a predominantly vegetarian state. Gujarati curry or their cuisine in general, is dominated by sweet notes due to semi-arid climatic conditions.

Being a major trade port and colony for Portugal for 4 centuries and influenced by Arab, Brazilian, African, Konkan, Malaysian and Chinese cultures, Goa has a distinctive and unique blend of these cultures and native elements in its cuisine. The Portuguese brought an assortment of goods, including vegetables, spices, bread, and meats. This transformed the local cuisine and recipes leading to a change in the food habits and lifestyle of the locals. Prawn Balchao, Pork Vindaloo and Pork Feijoada were introduced and vinegar became a household ingredient lending a sour flavour to Goan curries.

The highlight of Maharashtrian curries is the abundant use of peanuts and coconut. From the coastal delicacies of the Konkan where fish curry and rice are staples to the fiery fare from Vidharbha in the east and the specialties of the Deccan, you can’t categorize Maharashtrian cuisine into one; some are polar opposites, some overlap. The Khandesh or North-Western region of Maharashtra, which covers areas like Jalgaon, Malegaon and Nasik, is known for its extremely spicy chicken and mutton curries with peanut oil, dry coconut and Lavangi chillies in the limelight. These curries are identifiable because of the red tarri or oil that floats atop. Goda/Kala masala is an iconic Deshastha preparation, used to add flavour to a vast variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries.

East India

The Eastern India region is home to beaches and mountains and the geographical location means its curries bear strong influence of Chinese and Mongolian cuisine. The coastal area is lined with coconut palms and the fields are covered with mustard and tea plantations. Fish from the Bay of Bengal is eaten either in curries or fried throughout eastern India and is an important part of the local diet. Mustard oil is used as the principal cooking medium in all the curries, giving a pungent but slightly sweet flavour. In general, curries from Eastern part of India have a subtle hint of spices and often come in the form of fried curry or a curry cooked to a paste, while some may be spicy with a thin sauce or jhol. The curries in Northeast India tend to be savoury rather than spicy, relying heavily on onions for extra flavour. Some of the typical East Indian curries include Chicken Jalfrezi, Cumin Scented Chicken, Bengali Fish Curry, Bengali Sukto, Chana dal and Bottle  Gourd  Curry etc.

North India

This is perhaps the most prevalent culinary style in the restaurants and outside of India. North Indian curries reflect a robust Mughal influence and are characterized by extensive use of all forms of dairy – yogurt, cream, paneer and ghee, with dried fruits and nuts being common in everyday foods. North Indian curries have thick, moderately spicy, creamy gravies. The red colour in the curries isn’t from the use of copious amounts of red chilli powder but from the addition of pungent and less spicy kashmiri chillies which lend a very bright red colour to the food.

Although, the most famous curries of Northern India are a result of the Mughal Empire, Punjab’s Butter Chicken, that is widely popular across the globe, is cooked in a rich gravy of butter and spices, giving it an exotic taste of its own. Furthermore, Malai Kofta is one of the most popular dishes amongst vegetarians, where meatballs are made of fresh cheese or paneer and vegetables instead of meat and then dipped in a creamy rich sauce. The well known Rogan Josh, of Kashmiri origin, is a very complex lamb curry cooked with various spices.

As we now know, curry in India travels length and breadth of the sub-continent and can vary from region to region, even with the most basic household recipe. What these curries do have in common, though, is a sauce made from onions, garlic, tomato and authentic indian spices. A basic North Indian style chicken curry is very simple to make at home. Using chicken on the bone lends the curry a richer flavour and the spices, including, turmeric, coriander, cumin and red chilli powder, make this dish delicious. Serve it over hot steamed rice or with fresh naan (leavened bread)

Recipe for basic Chicken Curry

To marinate
800g  chicken on bone
½ cup full fat yogurt, whisked
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp coriander powder
2 tbsp each ginger and garlic paste
Salt to taste

For curry
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
½ tbsp vegetable oil
3 bay leaves
2 to 3 pods of cardamom
4 cloves
½ tsp whole black pepper
4 to 5 red onions, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
¼ tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp coriander powder
2 green chillies, chopped
Salt to taste
Chopped fresh coriander for garnish

How to make

• In a bowl mix together the chicken with the yogurt, turmeric powder, salt, ginger/garlic paste, red chilli powder and coriander powder. Set aside for at least 30 minutes.

• Heat the ghee and oil in a cooking pot. Saute the bay leaves, cloves, cardamom and black pepper in this until the spices give a fragrant aroma.

• Add onions and green chillies to the pot and saute until the onions turn light brown but not overcooked.

• Add spices one after the other, stirring in between each addition for a couple of seconds. Start by turmeric followed by coriander powder and red chilli powder. Cook them for a minute or two.

• Add tomatoes and salt and then mix well. Cover and cook until the mixture of onion, spices and tomatoes produce a film of oil.

• Transfer the marinated chicken and mix well. Lower temperature to simmer, add about ½ cup water and cook until the chicken pieces are done and oil begins to float on the top (about 30 minutes).

• Put into a serving bowl. Garnish with fresh coriander, and serve with hot rice or naan.