The British while in India cultivated a taste for spices. Upon their return home they attempted to create those exotic flavours that they loved in India. The result was ‘curry powder’!

The word ‘curry’ is said to be the Anglicized word from the Tamil word ‘kari’ which either related to the curry leaf (kari patha) or a dish with ‘gravy’. The British picked this word up (not knowing the meanings) and coined ’curry powder’ to describe their creation of an Indian spice blend. Unfortunately in doing so, the word ‘curry’ has not just become a general description for Indian cooking (colour, taste, style and method) but has also promoted the notion that one spice blend called ‘curry powder’ is the way to make an authentic Indian dish.

Different types of curry bases
Different types of curry bases (as seen on I Ate My Way Through Harris Park food tour)

The word ‘ curry’ in India simply means ‘gravy’ or ‘sauce’. In Kerala when the question is asked of the host, during a meal, “curry ondo?” the diner is asking, “what is there to wet my rice or bread?” The ‘curry’ could simply be yoghurt.

The Indian word to describe spice blends is ‘masala.’ Every cook, household and family has their own home-made blends for meat, fish, and vegetables. There is constant experimentation with new ingredients and spices.
As a result, there are lots of spice blends, constantly being created, changed and adapted across India – each uniquely made to suit individual preference and main ingredients e.g. fish, meat, or vegetable.

When a new dish is presented the question that is asked is “what masala did you use?

I Ate My Way Through Harris Park - Indian food tour in Sydney for students, corporate groups and large groups
Attendees sampling varieties of curries and more (on I Ate My Way Through Harris Park)

Dosa with curry
Masala dosa with curry (as seen on I Ate My Way Through Harris Park)

In Kerala we make both wet and dry masalas. Commonly used spices which are grown in Kerala include coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, mustard and nutmeg which are added to various dry masalas. Additionally freshly grated coconut or coconut milk, green and dried red chillies, turmeric and curry leaves may also be added. These fresh ingredients are often part of a wet blend, ground together to form a thick paste and combined with dry spices or added directly to the cooking. Of course, not all of these spices are mixed into one blend! For fish we use some of these spices together with the addition of a souring agent such as yoghurt, lime juice, vinegar, kokum or tamarind. For meat we use a heavier dry masala which may be followed by fresh ginger, garlic or onions. When cooking vegetables the mixture is often quite light on spices but is often rich with mustard seeds, coconut, green chillies, curry leaves and turmeric powder.

This article originally appeared in Tastes & Traditions, and has been republished with permission by Teresa George (co-author), who is also our Indian food tour guide for I Ate My Way Through Harris Park, a 3 hour guided culinary adventure that satisfies any foodie’s curiosity about Indian culture and cuisine.

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Teresa (Tess), is the tour leader for I Ate My Way Through Harris Park. A corporate trainer turned culinary instructor has just launched her first book, Tastes & Traditions about her South Indian culture, and also her unique business, DelicaTess, which delivers in-home South Indian cooking classes in Sydney. Her aim is to demystify Indian cooking. She draws on her diverse cultural background, family cooking traditions and her appreciation of Ayurveda. The food tours demonstrate her personality, her food passion, and knowledge on Indian food, spice and all that’s nice!