The telltale turmeric-yellow of a "curried" dish reflects a tradition that has as much to do with England as with India. The word curry is probably an Anglicization of the Tamil word kari, meaning spiced sauce. When the British colonized southern India in the seventeenth century, they were seduced by the cuisine but couldn't quite grasp the subtleties of the spice mixtures Indian cooks made at home. By 1780, factories in Madras were producing premixed, preground, turmeric-heavy blends and exporting them throughout the British Empire.
When Tony Hill traveled the world as a marketing specialist, a friend's mother gave him a gift that sparked his imagination: an old envelope with a recipe for Madras curry powder scrawled on the back--with no quantities. When Hill asked how much of everything to add, she told him "Only you can figure that out." Years later Hill is still toasting, blending and tasting spices at World Spice Merchants, the Seattle emporium he founded in 1994. At the heart of his vast collection are more than 15 regional Indian masalas--including his own Madras curry powder, which he grinds on the spot or sells as a mixture of whole spices to grind at home. Hill is adamant about freshness: "We follow the spices around the globe," he says, "choosing them only at their peak" (1509 Western Ave., Seattle; 206-682-7274 or www.worldspice.com).
Curry & Health
Many of the spices in Madras curry powder have curative properties. Cumin, cinnamon, coriander and fenugreek are all digestives, and vitamin C-rich chiles can help ward off colds. Recent research from the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, India, suggests that diabetics should supplement their drug treatment with fenugreek because the seeds help lower blood-sugar levels. The institute also found that turmeric contains the potent antioxidant curcumin; a teaspoon a day might help prevent certain kinds of cancer.
World of Curry
When South Asians took their curry blends around the world--from the Caribbean to Japan--the ingredients changed to suit local tastes. Sri Lankan cooks, who were used to toasting whole spices to make their black curries, added the local mace and nutmeg when they moved to the French West Indies. Cooks from northern India introduced sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom to the Southeast Asian mix of ginger, garlic and lemongrass for Massaman (Muslim) curry. Curry came to Japan during the Meiji era, in the nineteenth century. Today Japanese curry is sold in blocks, made of curry spices, animal fats and fruit paste; in addition to the standard versions, you can get variations like Vermont Curry (with apple and honey) and even a Hello Kitty curry.