Perhaps this is the plight of any food that goes international—ask pizza chefs in Florence what they think of Pizza Hut’s Cheese Margherita—but to the world outside, the curry, authenticity be damned, is a soupy mass of spices you spoon up with rice.
As Lucknavis, scoffing at plebeian variants in the rest of the country, and Gujaratis, sniffing uncomfortably at garlicky Goan vindaloos, would agree, there is no one curry. The curry as a pan-Indian phenomenon was a concept created by—and for the benefit of—British colonial masters who used it to describe “an unfamiliar set of Indian stews and ragouts”, according to Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Cunningham (2006).
Spicy in the deep south, mild in the central states, yogurt-sour in some states, to kokum-tangy in others, the contours of the curry are different everywhere. From historical to geographical, many factors determine the different-ness of the curry within India; in fact, there are as many curries as there are Indias.
Changing geographies, changing curries
While there is no one curry from a region—in fact, the curry varies from household to household as “eating is all about personal pleasure”—there are some typical curries in regions, says Salma Husain, a Delhi-based food historian and author of The Emperor’s Table: The Art of Mughal Cuisine. “Weather and ingredients are the main factors that determine the colour, texture and taste of the curry. So colder regions will have rich and exotic curries like the korma (cooked in yogurt and ghee, or clarified butter), whereas warmer regions will have lighter curries cooked in water, such as the kalia, for meats/fish,” she says. Typically, the curry is at its most spicy in the southern coastal states, particularly Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and gets milder as you go up towards Gujarat and Bengal, says Saneesh Varghese, head chef, Amaranta, The Oberoi, Gurgaon.
Five-spiced state: Bengali fish curry with the traditional paanch-phoran tempering.
The same rule applies to the colour of curries as well—most curries from a region will have a typical colour. “The northern part of India—with Kashmir and the hills—mainly has pinkish red or white curries such as the yakhni, red because of the Kashmiri chilli and white because of yogurt. In central India, the curry is predominantly yellow, with Rajasthan on one side and Bengal on the other, where they use a lot of mustard, along with yogurt,” says Ananda Solomon, executive chef, Vivanta by Taj, Mumbai. “Hip downwards”, the curry gets browner in colour because more spices are used.
Local produce is the mainstay of the curry, which is why on the coasts, fish and coconut can be found in almost every curry. While fish is popular in all coastal states except Gujarat (because of vegetarianism), in Bengal it is bit of a hero (specifically, hilsa for those from what used to be East Bengal, and prawn for West Bengal; check the fish prices during a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal football match), pretty much having determined the cuisine. “They value the freshness of the fish highly and, therefore, the curry is generally light and low on spices to preserve the flavour of the fish. The only element of spice comes from the mustard.” says Devraj Halder, executive assistant manager (food and beverages) The Suryaa, New Delhi. “Even the ingredients are ground the same day using a sil-batta (flat stone-grinder) (because poppy seeds cannot be ground properly in a mixer-grinder),” says Halder. Coconuts are common on the Konkan Coast in Maharashtra, Goa, coastal Karnataka and Kerala because the Konkan Coast ones have a creamy texture. The east coast, on the other hand, has dry coconuts, says Solomon. “This is why curries in Bengal, Orissa don’t use coconut. They use khus-khus (poppy seeds) instead as a thickening agent,” he says.
Often, many regions will use the same main ingredients with different results. The final touch comes from the tempering, which defines the “the ultimate taste” of the curry in the same way as it makes the dal different everywhere, says Halder. “The two versions of the cauliflower curry—using cauliflower and potatoes—in Bengal and Punjab are vastly different because of the tempering. The Punjabi aloo-gobi uses achari tadka (a spicy mix of roasted coriander, red chillies and mustard powder). The Bengali phoolkopir dalna is a light curry with delicate paanch-phoran (Bengali tempering using nigella sativa, mustard, fenugreek, cumin and fennel seeds) minus the clarified butter,” adds Halder.
Even the oil used to cook the curry changes with geography. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, says Varghese, they mainly use groundnut oil because peanuts are grown there. In Karnataka, the curry on the coastline, as along the rest of the Konkan Coast, is made with coconut oil. They also use a bit of vegetable oil. In Kerala, it’s 100% coconut oil because of the abundance of coconuts. In Tamil Nadu, they use gingelly oil (sesame oil), which gives a muddy, earthy flavour to their curries. Andhra curries are done in groundnut oil. Orissa, Bengal, Punjab and Kashmir use mustard oil. Mughlai cuisine uses ghee and refined oil.
When history determines flavour
History has played a prominent role in shaping the curry. Early travellers to India via the spice route, the Portuguese, British and French colonizers, have all left their mark on the curry, says Husain. “Different cooks came from different places and brought with them their ingredients and styles,” she says.
The curry, in the entire belt from Pakistan to Kolkata, is mildly spicy and creamy, with a tinge of sweetness. This belt was influenced by the ruling Mughals, themselves influenced by the Persians, who came via the spice route and introduced dry fruits, cream/yogurt into their food. “Most places ruled by Muslims have curries that are heavier in nature. They’re based in stock with lots of nuts, cashews, onions, as well as khus-khus, like kormas and razela in the east, essentially of Persian background,” says Halder. Although the texture of the curry across this belt changes—with the typical Lucknavi curry being thicker than the Bengali curries—the sweet taste typical of the Bengali curry is a legacy of the Mughals.
The united colours of curry: (clockwise from far right) Get a taste of Bengali sores mach, Andhra chepa pulusu, Chettinad chicken, Malabar fish curry, Goan fish curry and Awadhi lamb shahi korma at Amaranta, The Oberoi, Gurgaon.
Likewise, the Goan love for vinegar as a souring agent is a legacy of their Portuguese masters. Souring agents in the curry differ across regions and while the northern belt and Bengal use yogurt, the Konkan Coast and Kerala use the freely available kokum fruit, and Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, tamarind. Goa uses vinegar—as do Sri Lankans; in fact, the celebrated vindaloo is a Goan reinterpretation of the carne de vinho e alhos (pork cooked slowly in wine vinegar and garlic), the dish the Portuguese brought with them to India, according to Cunningham’s book.
It wasn’t just the visiting colonizers that brought their flavours to the curry. The opposite was also true—locals travelling outside came back with more flavours. The Chettiars, the travelling community in Tamil Nadu, came up with their celebrated Chettinad curry because of their interactions with the world outside. The 18-spice mix—black peppercorn, red chillies, curry leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, bay leaf, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, Marathi moggu, star anise, kalpasi, poppy seeds, nutmeg, mace, coriander seeds, coconut—is a result of their travels outside Tamil Nadu to the Nilgiri Hills, as well as meetings with various foreign merchants, says Varghese.
From the spice route to India to the west, creamy on the Konkan Coast to delicate on the east, the only constant about the curry is change.
Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint; location and food courtesy Amaranta, The Oberoi, Gurgaon.