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On the Sauce Trail: A Brief and Captivating History of Curry

What is a curry, where did the term come from and how far has it come? These are some of the questions London-based food writer Sejal Sukhadwala seeks to tackle in his first book, The Curry Philosophyreleased in March.


For two decades, Sukhadwala has researched and written about the history of Indian food and cuisine, tracing its origins and examining its evolution in relation to the rest of the world. She has seen recipes that have survived thousands of years fade away, only appearing at festivals and weddings. She has followed India’s food revolution, from the time when thali was the norm in urban homes with the rise of restaurants and cuisine with international ingredients. “People are cooking their grandmothers’ recipes less and less,” she says. But it’s a complex question, because how long can we keep the tradition anyway?

The merging and transformation of traditions, influenced by new methods and ingredients from around the world – a trend dating back to the 15th century – inform much of his book on curries, which was commissioned by the British Library as part of its Philosophy series on food. and drink.


The first thing Sukhadwala would like readers to know about The Curry Philosophy is that he doesn’t treat change as the enemy, or “authenticity” as some sort of holy grail. “People’s tastes and palates have always changed over time. International customs and habits have always influenced the cuisine,” she says.

“Curry” encompasses, for example, dishes from Goa that combine South Indian ingredients with Portuguese techniques (think red chilli and vinegar). It includes Hyderabadi dishes made with fresh coconut, kari patta and tamarind. It also contains the coconut-based Kerala stew which is said to have been created by Syrian Christians who scavenged the piece of stew (slow-cooked ingredients in stock) from Irish monks.

There is the Persian-influenced korma and do-piaza, the jalfrezi of Bengali origin, the rogan josh from Kashmir, the fiery Anglo-Bangladeshi phall. And local variations from Indonesia, such as sambal goreng (literally fried relish; generic term for a category of curry-like dishes made from meat, seafood, or vegetables flavored with curry paste, with or without milk coconut). Malaysian beef rendang, which itself has many recipes across the Malay Peninsula. And Japan’s kare raisu (for curry and rice; made with chicken, meat or fish cooked with onions, potatoes and carrots in a sweet curry sauce with apples or honey).


According to the definition of Sukhadwala, a curry is any spicy dish of Indian origin or influence, in which vegetables, meat or other proteins are cooked in a pan, usually with a sauce made from tomatoes, onions , coconut, yogurt, chickpea flour, nuts, cream, water or broth. This broad definition unites curries from around the world, but “curry” is ultimately a category like bread or pie, she says.

curry flavor

Sukhadwala was born in India, to a banker and housewife, and moved to London with her family as a child. She remembers a childhood of her mother’s ‘exquisite’ Gujarati food. “My mother was buying ingredients every day and cooking all the dishes from scratch, including all the pickles and snacks, which she still does,” says Sukhadwala.


She switched from a career in psychology to food writing in 2002. She had long loved food and writing “and I wanted to combine the two,” she says. Her writing (which has appeared in The Guardian, Time Out and BBC Food, among other platforms) has led her into food research. She is currently working on a dictionary of Indian cuisine, a huge effort that has already taken her four years.

By the way, one of the terms in this book is curry, which Sukhadwala traces to possible origins in the Tamil word “kari”, which means black or black and refers to the black pepper used in curries, says- she.

The hardest thing about finding curries, Sukhadwala says, wasn’t the wide variety or where to draw the lines. “The most important and problematic debates to navigate are those currently unfolding globally, including authenticity, culinary appropriation and the decolonization of food.”


Sukhadwala does not believe in “authenticity” when it comes to food. “It’s a problematic concept. Literally the only authentic meal would be the barley or millet porridge that the early Indians ate,” she says. “I use the word ‘traditional’. It is also problematic, but less so.

When it comes to traditional recipes, says Sukhadwala, there are many things we should preserve. She has been happy to see a movement in recent years towards preserving lost recipes and discovering lesser-known dishes from marginalized tribes and communities, she adds. “Modern Indian chefs seek out and revive long-forgotten regional specialties, so I hope traditional dishes don’t disappear completely.”