Curry – Uniting Culture and History

Bryon L. Garner
DLA Energy and
Member of DLA HQ EEO Special Emphasis Program Committee

In the minds of many, food is often closely tied with ethnic and cultural identity, and the contribution of curry powder to the global kitchen is a noteworthy instance of the early forces of globalization.  Popularized during the era of colonization, curry has a meaning that can be as vague and as inclusive as its ingredients.

The history of curry dates back to early civilization:  The Indus Valley was home to one of the world's first urban civilizations - along with those in Egypt and Mesopotamia - and there is evidence of curry use in 1700b.c. Mesopotamia.  While curry probably originated in India, its popularity in England as early as the 1300’s led to its proliferation throughout the world. Adopted and adapted after the British colonization of India, the word comes from “Kari” which is from the Tamil language and was later anglicized into “curry”.  Currying things, with fresh or tinned curry powder, became synonymous with British cookery and became an enduring legacy of the British Empire and colonization. Curry powder’s popularity in England ensured its journey to America with the early settlers.  By the early 19th century in America, Eliza Leslie’s bestseller book Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (1837) contained recipes for mulligatawny soup with freshly ground curry powder.  

Curry powder is used in the cuisine of almost every country and can be incorporated into a dish or even a drink. Curry powder is not a single spice but a blend of different spices and can be mild or hot. This golden colored spice is one of the oldest spice mixes and is most often associated with Indian cuisine.  While it once just meant Indian food, it now denotes various kinds of dishes in numerous different parts of the world that are all savory and all are spiced.  Curry powder is distinguished from curry leaves which have nothing to do with curry powder.  Curry leaves, popularly known in India as kariveppilai, karivepaaku or kari patta, are aromatic and flavorful leaves that can change the taste of a dish quite dramatically by adding a pungent lemony flavor.

Asian cuisine is a melting pot of cultures, traditions, influences, and food representing cultural regions.  The first is known as the southwest style that includes cuisines from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Curry powder became a staple in this dietary culture. The second major dietary culture of Asia is the northeast tradition, comprising China, Korea, and Japan. Finally, the third major dietary culture of Asia is the southeast style, which includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. While northeastern cuisines emphasize using soy sauce in nearly everything, many cultures in the southeast substitute fish sauce, along with galangal, lemon grass, and tamarind for additional flavor.  Comparing the three cuisines with each other, we can notice that curries are very important to the cuisines of the southeast and southwest, less so in the northeast.

While the term curry and the Western world’s taste for it has often paralleled complex intercultural relations between East and West, modern Asian chefs have reclaimed and rebranded curry as a measure of cultural authenticity. What remains is the fact that modern curries are still developing and changing, but always with a nod back to history.


CLASADS_mast bg social-media-graphic-4
No federal endorsement implied.