The History of Asian Curry

Spoonful of curry powder
Getty Images/Brigitte Wegner

While many people believe that curry refers to a single spice called curry powder found in spice racks at the local supermarket, curry can actually be dry or wet, a mixture of dry spices or a spiced sauce. There is a good chance that the dish you are served at a restaurant won't contain curry leaves. It may not even be hot.

The History of Curry Powder

Much of our confusion dates back to the days of British colonialism. The story goes that a British official, preparing to leave India and wanting to enjoy his favorite Indian dishes after he returned home, ordered his servant to prepare a mix of Indian spices. Thus, the identification of curry with a dry powder was born.

It doesn't help that commercially made curried powders often bear little resemblance to the fragrant spice mixtures prepared from scratch daily by Indian housewives. This also helps explain why restaurant take-out dishes such as Singapore Curried Rice Noodles get such a bad rap.

An Overview of Curry

To understand the true nature of curry, it helps to know that the word comes from the Tamil kahri, which means "sauce". Throughout Southeast Asia and India, curries are not spice blends but a dish, one with a liquid, gravy-like consistency. Contrary to popular opinion, not every curry is overly hot. This makes sense when you consider that, although curries have been a mainstay of Indian cooking for centuries, chili peppers are a New World fruit. Prior to the capsicum's introduction to Europe (and subsequently Asia) by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the most pungent ingredient in a curry mix would have been black pepper.

Today, there are four spices commonly found in curry pastes and powders:

  • Chilies: the type used will affect the pungency of the dish; generally smaller chilies are hotter. The red and green curry pastes featured in Thai cooking are made with red and green chilies, respectively.
  • Turmeric: this is what gives many curries their yellow color.
  • Coriander: the seeds from the coriander plant, valued since ancient times for their rumored aphrodisiacal properties.
  • Cumin: one of the world's oldest seasonings, it has a nutty flavor and is frequently used in spice blends


Although there are no hard and fast rules, at least three of these spices will be present in most curries.

Where Is Curry Found in Asia?

Despite its introduction by India monks journeying along the famous Silk Route, curry never really caught on in most of China. However, curry is frequently used in southern China to lend flavor to seafood, vegetable, and noodle dishes.

Of course, it's a different story in Southeast Asia. Curries from Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have a delightfully different flavor due to the incorporation of local ingredients. Lime and lemongrass are often used in curry pastes or powders. Coconut milk is frequently used as a thickener, although, contrary to popular opinion, not all Thai curries are made with coconut milk. Nuts often make their way into curries, and candlenut (a white nut shaped like a walnut or hazelnut) is a popular ingredient in Indonesian and Malaysian curry pastes.

As the above information indicates, curries are extremely adaptable. Feel free to experiment, adding your favorite spices and other ingredients. If you're not comfortable making your own curry paste, the Vietnamese brands available at specialty food stores have a sweet flavor and are generally quite good for Southeast Asian dishes. For southern Chinese recipes, most experts recommend sticking with the traditional Indian pastes.

Depending on the type of chilies used, the strength of both red and green curry pastes can range from comparatively mild to fiery hot. It's not always easy to tell the flavor of a paste from the container, so ask store staff if you need help. One final cooking tip: the secret to making a successful curry is to allow it simmer for a long period, bringing out the full flavor of the spices.