What is Curry?
Written by Gia Coelho
I grew up in a sleepy suburb of Pune, a small town in India, which has since become a bustling metropolis, fondly known as the “Oxford of the East.” Some of my earliest memories revolve around the glorious colors, tastes and fragrances that define the mysticism of India and its unique cuisine. Steeped in thousands of years of tradition, Indians take their food and its preparation very seriously, with unyielding grandmas frowning at shortcuts and liberties taken by younger generations trying to break the mold and pave a culinary path of their own.
The heart of the Indian home centers around the kitchen; with mothers, grandmothers and aunts lovingly doling out advice, admonishments and mouth-watering sweets in equal measure. Meals are carefully planned and suffused in tradition, timing and what’s in season. Yogurt, melons and cucumbers are staple summer foods while carrots, beets and sweet potatoes battle the cold in the winter. All-natural, food based remedies that cure practically every ailment are an inherent part of the culture. A spoonful of turmeric and a dash of honey in warm milk is as comforting as a hug and has been a sore throat remedy in India since time immemorial. I remember my mother making me steaming mugs of it on chilly winter nights. These are just some of the memories that come flooding back to me as I stand in the aisle of a huge grocery store in a busy city in the United States. I am surrounded by row upon row of spotlessly clean boxes and jars, with barely a trace of the original ingredients in them. It is then that I understand why most children in America when asked where milk comes from, reply: “the carton in the grocery store of course”!
‘Spices sourced from remote villages, the Indian sunshine and a little pinch of magic makes up this staple of every Indian kitchen.’
In America and in fact in most of the western world, the word “curry” has become synonymous with Indian cuisine. What has become known simply as “curry,” is in fact a closely guarded family treasure. It is a complex formulation of spices that are dried in the smoldering Indian sun on open patios and carefully guarded from avaricious birds and curious felines. The spices such as whole cloves, cinnamon, cumin, coriander seeds, bay leaves and black peppercorns are added in varying measures based on the family recipe, which is passed on from one generation to the next. The most distinguishing factor is perhaps the quantity of regional, dried red chilies that are added to the mix. The chilies range from tiny and potent to large and mild, in every shade of orange, red and burgundy and are sorted by the extent to which they make your mouth burn! The whole spices are ground into a fine powder, bottled in air-tight containers and generously added to vegetables and lentils giving them their signature flavors that cannot be replicated without the accurately measured spice mix.
It is this spice mix, or “Garam masala” that makes Indian food from every home and each region taste authentically different. Spices sourced from remote villages, the Indian sunshine and a little pinch of magic makes up this staple of every Indian kitchen. How all of that can be simply summed up in one word – curry – is unfathomable to me! Mine is delivered to me by my mother each year in the spring, since the winter sun brings out the most subtle flavors in spices that make up the garam masala. It must last me all year long. Indian food tastes best when eaten with your fingers so the metallic taste of modern utensils don’t interfere with the delicate flavors. It takes a little dexterity to consume without utensils and must be done without spilling of course, turmeric will stain your clothes forever.
I remember spending a lot of my childhood in the kitchen watching my mother work her magic on savory lentils, plump vegetables that were every shade of the rainbow, fat grains of rice and fluffy, flaky layered bread called parathas. If I stayed long enough I always got to taste some of the delicacies. More often than not, I got impatient with the waiting and swallowed mouthfuls of delights when my mother had her back turned. When I came home from play-dates and visiting my friends, I was always asked about the delightful treats I had been served. The reason for this is that within the constraints of a conservative culture, food is the one uninhibited way in which to express your feelings, those of humility, affection and friendship. After long separations, the cure for everything is undoubtedly a huge helping of sweets and Indians certainly love their dessert. No meal, meeting, celebration or soiree is compete without a sweet finish, usually made of whole milk, clarified butter, nuts, dried fruit and sugar that leaves you licking your fingers in a floral cloud of cardamom!
The kind of food prepared in each Indian home tells a unique story of its ancestry, heritage and geographical location. The use of cardamom and saffron speaks of wealth, while the use of coconut speaks of idyllic coastal villages nestled in thickets of palm groves. Every ingredient tells a story, be it of a little farm in the country or herbs nurtured in the backyard of the home. Despite all of the rich layers that make up the multifaceted tapestry of the Indian culinary story, the one thing that all Indian food has in common is that it is an expression of hospitality, friendship and love – so much more than just “curry.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gia Coelho was born in India and now lives outside of Washington, DC. Her passions include culinary adventures, writing and painting acrylics on canvas. She also enjoys creating colorful, Zentangle art that she sells on her Etsy site: www.etsy.com/shop/giacoelho