chef’s corner

Featuring Chef Mai Pham, Culinary Director for Lemon Grass Kitchen


What’s in a Curry?

Curry. Kari. Kaeng. However you pronounce it, curry is one of the world’s most beloved dishes. Many believe the Indian subcontinent to be the birthplace of curries, and that they migrated West following British colonial rule throughout the 18th century. The word ‘curry’ comes from the Indian Tamil word kari, which is used to describe any dish made with a blend of spices. It is thought that curry spice blends were originally developed by Indian traders to help returning British rulers and expatriates recreate the taste of Indian curries back home. The Indian spice trade boom helped to introduce curry to the rest of Asia.

Today, there is much debate about the origin of curry, as there are thousands of recipes from around the world. Generally, curries fall under three categories – Indian, Thai, and Malaysian/Indonesian.

Indian curries are typically either Northern or Southern style. Northern Indian-style curry is characterized by its use of hard spices such as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin; dairy products such as cream, yogurt or milk; and wheat-based staples such as naan bread. Flavors are bold, spices are pungent, and sauces are rich and creamy. Southern Indian-style curry incorporates similar spices, but is lighter and more spicy hot. It relies heavily on coconut milk, and instead of naan, rice is the preferred starch staple.

Thai curries or kaeng pet, which translates as “spicy curry,” are quite different. What makes the Thai rendition distinctly different from the Indian is its aromatic flavors; its brothy composition; meat and vegetables in a curry paste made from pounded chillies, lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime, along with shrimp paste and hard spices such as coriander and cumin seeds. Red curry paste is made from dried red chillies, green curry paste from green chillies, and yellow curry paste from turmeric and chillies.

Malaysian/Indonesian style curries are somewhere between Indian- and Thai-styles. They are typically thick, highly flavorful, and sometimes tangy from the heavy use of tamarind. While many versions bear similarities to those in India, Malaysian curries rely heavily on rempah, an essential spice mixture of pounded fresh red chillies, turmeric, shallots, galangal, lemongrass, candlenut, and fermented shrimp paste, or belachan.

While there are certainly differences in curry traditions, the base of all great curries is fresh ingredients carefully constructed to allow each spice and herb to meld into one enticing dish.