Curry is one of those words like salsa; it means different things to different people. At its most basic, the term refers to a spicy dish of vegetables or meat served with rice. It is derived from the Tamil word kari, which means sauce.
In some types of Indian cuisine, curry denotes a dish that is sort of like a soup made with yogurt, clarified butter, spices and chick pea flour. Other regions from England to Thailand use the term as a generic word for meat or vegetables cooked with a spicy sauce.
Different types use different main ingredients, depending on the region of Asia or India. Curry from the Punjab region, for instance, involves wheat instead of rice, and is heavy on the butter and cream. Dishes from Malayali usually have coconut and coconut milk, as well as bay leaves. That from Tamil, however, is probably what most western people think of when they think of this term. Tamil curry refers to shallow-fried meat or vegetables cooked along with dry spices.
It’s the spices that most people think of as making defining curry. That’s because in many parts of the world you can buy a prepared blend of spices known as curry powder that is used to make a dish of this name. To make things more confusing, this powder may contain curry leaves, which come from the curry tree (or curry leaf tree), which is native to India.
The leaves are used sort of like bay leaves in Indian cooking, but they are not the only ingredient in curry powder. This powder is like chili powder — everyone has his or her own recipe and each concoction is a little bit different.
One common thread in many spice powder mixtures is turmeric, which gives curries a distinctive yellow color. Other popular spices in the mix include coriander, ginger, garlic, chilies, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin and tamarind.
The main types of curry you might encounter in an Indian or Thai restaurant are red, yellow, and green. Red is made with red chiles, while green is made with green chiles. Yellow is made mostly with turmeric and cumin, though it may include hot peppers or pepper flakes as well.
Curry dishes can now be found all over the world, with regional variations in many countries including Sri Lanka, South Africa, Japan, the United States, China, the Caribbean and Bangladesh, to name just a few. It is one of those wonderful foods that adapts everywhere it goes, making it a dish loved the world over.