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.

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, Tamil Nadu 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 wordkari 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
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 cannot find any word, karil in Kanarese. The closest I can find is the wordkari, 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.

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. It’s 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.

Red Lentil Dal

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 sûpathat 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)

Leave a Comment