The Origins of Curry Powder

Where did curry powder come from? There is no real equivalent in authentic subcontinental cuisines for a ready-made powder. The closest thing to a curry powder is a masala, and that is almost always more of a paste than a powder because of the addition of wet and dry ingredients to the mix. On the subcontinent, seeds and roots, etc. are roasted, ground and mixed in varying proportions according to the needs of the recipe. Although the origins of curry powder are unclear, the advertisement below gives us a firm data point of the mid 1780s for a commercial curry powder for sale in London.

First British Curry Advertisement
First British Curry Advertisement

The advertisement, which ran in the Morning Post (now incorporated into the Daily Telegraph) says that this curry powder was brought back from the East Indies by Solander. Now, Solander was the great Swedish naturalist who was botanist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the Pacific. Despite the claim, this is probably just a marketing ploy – like Mrs. Pepperidge – because the closest the Endeavour ever got to India was actually Indonesia (Batavia/Jakarta) and it returned to Britain in 1771, some 13 years before the advertisement. Solander, on the other hand, did meet an untimely death in 1784, and was something of a celebrated figure at the time. So, it was good business sense by the maker of the curry powder to use Solander’s name to conjure images of exploration and the exotic cuisines of the east.

It isn’t completely clear which company manufactured this powder, but I have one data point that indicates that it was Crosse and Blackwell – S&B – still makers of chutneys, relishes, and sauces. The problem with this is that they weren’t incorporated until 1830 when the men behind the initials S&B bought the business from its proprietors West and Wyatt. West and Wyatt, on the other opened its doors for business in 1706, so it indeed could have been their curry powder for sale at Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in 1784.

The advertisement claims that the curry powder will help you make sumptuous sauces for East-Indian dishes. It also says that the curry powder promotes good digestion, good circulation, a vigorous mind and . . . wait for it . . . a strong libido. Who doesn’t want more of all that? How could anyone resist?

Dean Mahomet
Sake Dean Mahomet

However, because our early data point shows commercial curry powder for sale in 18th Century England, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an English invention. People from the subcontinent were already immigrating in the 17th Century, with the earliest baptism of an Indian-born Asian man in 1616, and by the 18th Century, Indian sailors were commonplace on East India Company ships, hired to replace men who had died on the voyage east. The passage for the Indian sailors was often one-way, from east to west, with the sailors attempting to start a life in a less-than-welcoming England. Usually, however, they wound up in transient, low-wage jobs or living by the good will of others. The cooks on the ships who fed these sailors, sometimes fared better than the sailors themselves, and wound up as tavern and pub cooks, slinging British food as well as the occasional curry to the hungry English populous.

In 1773 the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket started selling a prepared curry, and by 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian-owned and operated Indian restaurant in Britain with the Hindustan Coffee House at 34 George Street, Portman Square. In Mahomet’s restaurant, British patrons could enjoy hookahs with ‘real Chilim tobacco’ as well as a wide selection of curries.

Fortunately, perhaps, or not, this article has no firm conclusions to offer about the definitive origins of curry powder, but it does place some good data on the table. Despite my wanting to keep the door open to the contributions of Anglo-Asians in the formulation of curry powders, my instinct tells me that commercial, prepared curry powder is probably not their contribution to world cuisine. If it were an Asian or an Anglo-Asian invention, I would think that the taste of curries made with curry powder would be a lot more authentically “Indian”. Still, I’ll keep digging to see there are further strands to pull, so stay tuned. (Words by Laura Kelley, Newspaper clipping of first British Curry Powder Ad from the British Library and Portrait of Sake Dean Mohamet from the Wellcome Archive.)

The Origins of Curry

The origins of curry – both the word and the food – are clouded in assumption, misinformation and cherry-picking of language to suit one’s purposes.  From my recent research on curry for the Curry Through Foreign Eyes series, I have found that a great deal of the misinformation written in English can be traced to The Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary, first published in 1886.  In this edition and many subsequent editions of the H-J  it states that the root word for curry is the Tamil word kari that means “sauce”. An alternate possibility for the root word is given as the Kanarese word, karil.

Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary
Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary

This is incorrect on several accounts.  First off, the meaning of Tamil word kari varies a great deal depending upon location, class and caste with meanings ranging from “blackened” to “chewing”, “vegetables”, “meat”, “pepper or pea”, and “side dish”. (Please note, that the linguistic studies consulted did not note a meaning for Tamil word kari as “sauce” at all.)

A few examples of this variance include, how Brahmins use the word kari in Chingleput, Tamilnadu to refer to meat in general or to a particular kind of meat, or certain meat dishes. When speaking to vegetarians, these same speakers use the word to refer to vegetables or vegetable dishes. The meaning, “side dish” is only used in the extreme south (Kanyakumari), where the word kari is also used in conjunction with other words to denote vegetables and vegetable dishes. Some speakers in this area also use the word to denote certain liquid dishes – broths and soups.  So the meaning in Tamil depends on who you are, where you live, and with whom you are speaking.   As a point of note, a common word used to mean “sauce” in Tamil, and this particularly means a vegetable or pulse sauce, such as one made from lentils is sambhar; another is kuz, with kuzumbu denoting a tamarind-yogurt sauce and its variants. Neither word, you will notice, even remotely sounds like the English word, “curry”.

Pan-Roasting Spices
Pan-Roasting Spices

Later editions of the Hobson-Jobson omit the Tamil kari as the root of the word curry and cite the Kanarese word karil as the ancestral root for curry, and the word adopted by the Portuguese in Goa. This is problematic, because to the best of my ability, I can not find any word, karil in Kanarese.  The closest I can find is the word kari, which means to cook or particularly to fry.  Another set of meanings for the Kanarese term is “blackened, scorched or roasted”.  This, you will note, is the same as one of the meanings for the Tamil kari (because both terms spring from the same Proto-Dravidian root).

Taking these two meanings together, the Kanarese term kari could have been associated with the cooking of curry in the preparation of masalas.  One possibility is in reference to the way in which whole spices are dry-fried or pan-roasted before grinding. Another possibility could refer to the way in which the masala paste is often fried before being added to the rest of the ingredients of the curry. Thus, the Kanarese word kari may have been transliterated by the Portuguese to become their word for “curry” –  karil or caril.

Red Lentil Dal
Red Lentil Dal

Another error in the H-J concerns the antiquity of curry.  The H-J states that the earliest precise mention of curry is in the Mahavanso (ca. 477 ACE).  The passage states, “He partook of rice dressed in butter with its full accompaniment of curries.”  The original Pali word taken to mean curry by the translator is sûpa.  Other translations of sûpa are broth, soup or liquid preparations of vegetables.  While not out of the question that this could refer to a curry it could also refer to something more like a soup, broth or a pulse-based condiment like a lentil dal.  Its another example of the possible variation or lack of definition being taken out of a potential data point in the quest for the roots of curry.

My own research has identified a much earlier use of the term sûpa in another ancient Pali manuscript.  The 26th canto of the S’rîmad Bhâgavatamm, which is also known as the Bhâgavata Purâna has an instance of sûpa that is translated as, “liquid vegetable preparations”.

Let the people cook many varieties of cooked foods ending with liquid vegetable preparations, and beginning with sweet rice, fried and baked cakes, large, round cakes made from rice flour, and all that is obtained by milking the cows. 

The oral tradition of the Puranas along with many other ancient Hindu texts date back many thousands of years.  However, the Puranas, Vedas and the Mahabharata are said to have been compiled by Dvaipâyana Vyâsadeva, often known simply as Vyâsa.  Vyâsa is said to have lived in the early Kuru Dynasty (1200 – 800 BCE) and is listed in the family tree as the grandson of Kuru himself. This would place Vyâsa’s life sometime in the 11th or 12th Century BCE.  Whatever the “liquid vegetable preparation” that the term sûpa referred to, it is mentioned in text that is at least 3000 years old.

Apologies to all who found this to be a long, boring, or overly-academic post. I just felt that to all of the misinformation out there in the ether, it would be nice to add something with some reasonable research (as opposed to blind repetition) behind it. As usual, I may not be right, but at least I am well-referenced.

(Research and Words by Laura Kelley; Photos borrowed from Google Images)

The Silk Road and the English Kitchen

A guest post by Chef, Miles Collins:

When Laura kindly offered me her pulpit to eulogise the wonders of the Silk Road I knew at once what I should write about-England. I am English and as an Englishman I owe those ancient traders and travellers of the Silk Road a huge debt of gratitude. For as much as Laura’s writings of soups and stews from Azerbaijan to Pakistan seem a million miles from the green and pleasant pastures of an English countryside it is our penchant for spice which binds us in a way most of my fellow country folk are blissfully ignorant of.

Elizabeth David

Laura’s investigative prowess has shone through in her book and on this blog and has taught us that herbs and spices have played an integral part of all of our history since the earliest civilisations.

So what of the Silk Road’s influence on English food? For that I turn to the Queen of English cookery writing, Elizabeth David. For it is Ms David who, for me bridges that gap in food terms between the days of the British Empire and the multi- cultural Britain we see today. It is in her wonderful book Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, first published in 1970 that you are reminded of the importance of spice in English cookery.

The book is littered with references to nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, pepper, mace and mustard among many others and, quite rightly dispels the commonly held English misconception that these flavours are unique to England. I must point out that this is not based on some form of old colonial arrogance, far from it. It stems from the dishes the English have known and loved since their earliest childhood memories; cinnamon toast, custard tarts flecked with nutmeg, kedgeree, boiled mutton with mustard sauce, Christmas pudding, boiled sweets with aniseed, the list goes on. You see, spice has been embedded in our food culture in a quiet, unassuming way for so long that we have made it our own in our typically quiet and unassuming way.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Perhaps it is because our use of spice tends to be less liberal than that of other cuisines that we don’t notice it so much. With the exception of our fiery ‘English’ mustard much of our use of spice can be found in baked form such as puddings, breads, tarts and pies which is why, I suppose that a fresh grating of nutmeg always reminds me of home and childhood desserts.

References to curry can be found in our history books as far back as the 16th century but it wasn’t until the Victorian era and more especially the First World War when the notion of using curry spices to mask the flavour of meat such as mutton really took hold in people’s homes.

Fast forward from David’s heyday in the fifties and sixties to modern day Britain and our national favourite as voted by the British public; the chicken tikka masala. Much was made of this revelation a couple of years ago, it was, apparently a sign of our changing culture and a new found love of spice. I am not sure which is the more delicious, the masala or the irony. (Words by Miles Collins; Photo of Elizabeth David borrowed from The Daily Mail; Photo of Chicken Tikka Masala by monkeybusinessimages@Dreamstime.com)