Appetites and Afterthoughts

Curry for Christmas: An ancient Indian culinary mystique

Yes, I know, food writers in December issues are supposed to write about turkey and roast beef for those year-end holiday dinners. But I’m going to write about curry. I’m a curry geek and proud of it. You may be, too, but if not, here are some things you might like to know about this passion for curry.

Many years ago, I sailed on the Peninsular and Oriental passenger ship Himalaya as press officer. My job was to seek out interesting passengers for the press to write about when we hit port. And as a freelance writer, I was also looking for a good story. I found it aboard the Himalaya: the ship’s glorious curry. In those days, Indians, usually from the state of Goa, the one-time Portuguese province on the Indian subcontinent’s southwest coast, staffed the galleys of these ships. In the kitchens of the grand old Himalaya, one Goanese worker attracted me. He was the curry cook, who prepared the various Indian curries for the crew. Passengers found curry on their menus once a week or so, but the ship’s British staff and Punjabi and Goanese crew found curry on their plates every day. I was considered crew and got my fill of all things curry.


One day I wandered into the galley and sought out the curry cook. “What is curry powder?” I asked. He decided to show me.

On a long worktable, he laid out small piles of dried leaves, roots, twigs, berries, seeds, and such. Cardamom, caraway, anise, ginger, garlic, chilies, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, fennel, mace, poppy seeds, cumin, mustard seeds, black peppercorns, bay leaf, saffron, sometimes asafetida — maybe more. I can’t remember. Then, seemingly at random, he took a pinch of this and a pinch of that and dropped them in a large stone mortar. And with a mammoth pestle he pulverized the lot of it. It was the magic of the curry cult — a group of which I am now a member in good standing. When my newfound Goanese friend was finished, he allowed me to peek into the mortar. A vaguely yellow-orange powder greeted me, and I sniffed the magnificent, unmistakable smell of curry.


To many— probably most— curry powder comes from the supermarket in a small jar or a small rectangular tin. And that’s fine. When prepared with that powder, a pseudo kind of curry tastes curryish.

To some few, curry is something else again — home-ground curry powder, pulverized in a mortar. Magic powder! Your clothes will smell of it. Your entire house will be redolent with that remarkable smell.


The curry concept dates back more than 4,000 years on the Indian subcontinent. Archeologists figured it out from studying shards of pottery and from forensic dental tests. The word curry probably comes from a Tamil Indian word Kaari, which originally referred to a meat or vegetable dish eaten with rice. It was a kind of spicy stew. Cookery in India has long been considered a gift of the gods — and it is. Historians believe the spicy food concept began logically in a hot climate and with a people that used its indigenous spices for flavor. The spicy curries were a good foil for the hot weather, and in a country where refrigeration was nonexistent, the spices worked as a food preservative.

Curry can be mild or it can be as hot as a blast furnace. In India, curry was not prepared as a fiery gravy over rice until after Columbus mistakenly took the New World for the Spice Islands and sent chilies back to Europe. From there the hot capsicum pods made their way to India and Southeast Asia.

I recall on a visit to Kuala Lumpur, I cockily uttered the word hot when my turbaned waiter asked how I wanted my curry. Fortunately, he had placed me in a special air-conditioned dining room away from the local customers. After the first bite of my lamb curry over rice, I screamed for mercy — and water.


Perhaps the greatest devourers of curry outside of India and Southeast Asia are the British. There are thousands of curry houses in Great Britain, and the U.K. even celebrates a national curry week. (It’s in October in case you want to pop over to London to attend.) The British love of curry dates to the British Raj in the 19th and 20th centuries when colonial India was dominated by British civil servants and the military. The Brits ate what their colonial Indian household servants provided them — and that was curry, in all its forms, and with all of its accompanying condiments, usually referred to as sambals. In the galley office aboard the Himalaya, there was a notice posted that listed more than 20 sambals, including chopped onions and tomatoes, raisins, dried banana, ground coconut, cucumber, mangoes, limes, hard-boiled eggs, and a variety of chutneys.


And, of course, curry is big in food-savvy San Francisco. There are some fine Indian restaurants here and some of them are noted for their curry dishes. A few that come to mind are Dosa (1700 Fillmore Street and 995 Valencia Street), which features classic South Indian dishes; Udupi Palace (1007 Valencia Street) also serving South Indian fare; Amber India (25 Yerba Buena Lane) is upscale and has a wide variety of Indian dishes of various styles, and Lahore Karahi (612 O’Farrell Street) in the Tenderloin has wonderful curry offerings.

And that’s the story of the curry cult. When writing this story, I suggested to my editor that the printer sift some good curry powder between the pages of this paper for realism. But that idea never gained traction.

For a list of common curry ingredients, see the online version of this article at

Send to a Friend Print