With summer nearly here, now is the time to indulge in curry before it really warms up outside. Fortunately, curries of various cuisines and of varying heats are particularly well represented in our cosmopolitan city. We quizzed numerous Dubai chefs discover more about the dish’s international history, medicinal benefits and regional differences.
Curry is ‘the most ancient way of producing food’ on the Indian subcontinent, according to Ravi Rao, chef de cuisine at Indian restaurant Chor Bazaar at Ibn Battuta Gate. Urban food mythologies abound about the origin of curry. Some will argue that strong spices were originally used to camouflage the taste of meat past its best, in a time before refrigeration. Others explain that in a tropical climate, a curry-induced sweat can help to cool you down.
A more plausible theory for the development of the curry dish is the use of spices for their health benefits. This is particularly evident in ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of alternative medicine, the theory of which has influenced the use of spices in Indian cooking.
‘The spices used in curries also have some medicinal qualities that help us to stay healthy,’ Chef Rao confirms. ‘Turmeric is antiseptic, which fights against antibodies. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and peppercorns help to activate the blood cells and make the body more active. Carom seeds prevent acidity and gastric problems,’ he explains.
Curry cooking techniques and ingredients vary throughout the Indian subcontinent. For example, Kashmiri, Mughlai and Punjabi curries tend to be richer, Rao says, because they use ghee and butter. On the other hand, he adds that ‘fresh coconut, coconut milk and coconut oil are very popular in Goan cuisine, Kerala and Madras regions of south India’.
Like southern Indian curries, Thai versions often show a preference for rich and creamy coconut bases and nuts. Across South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the all-important starting point is the curry paste. Even so, the flavour profile of a Thai curry differs hugely. While the classic Thai dish might be as chilli-packed and hot as any Indian curry, other ingredients at the heart of Thai versions of the dish (ginger, galangal and lemongrass) tend to display sharper, fresher flavours than many of the warm and earthy spices (cinnamon, cloves, cumin and turmeric) favoured in India.
Although Thailand and India are often most strongly associated with curry, it is a dish that exists with varying guises, ingredients and levels of heat all over the world, from Jamaica to Japan.
So perhaps the origin of curry is as simple as the luck and logistics of having access to a plethora of herbs and spices. Case in point: Salvatore Silvestrino, a chef at Asian restaurant Wok In at the Mövenpick Deira, explains that the Japanese curry came from neighbouring nations in Asia only indirectly, through the British. In Japan, he tells me, curry rice was originally considered to be an exotic Western import. ‘Western-style curry draws its influence from stews mixed with curry powder, which were popular among the British Navy,’ explains Silvestrino. ‘The Imperial Japanese Navy adopted curry from the Royal Navy, and now the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Friday menu consists of curry rice.’
Japanese curries use several spices from Thai and Indian cooking, such as garam masala, Silvestrino says. Nevertheless, they are no relation to an Indian or Thai dish. ‘The spiciness is the variant. There is no heat in a Japanese curry: it’s mellow, sassy and, most of all, it’s fragrant rather than pungent,’ he confirms.
Strengthening the argument that cultural fluidity has furthered the cause of curry across the world is Chef Ricardo Frias of China Garden. The Dubai-based chain of Chinese restaurants offers several Chinese-style curries, all from the Cantonese region. ‘Curry dishes are not typical to Cantonese cuisine,’ says Frias.
‘But history shows that chefs specialising in Cantonese food are innovative and are taught to incorporate non-native ingredients into their cooking. Coconut milk, curry powder – staples of Thai, Vietnamese and Indian food – are seen in several Cantonese dishes.’
In the case of the Cantonese version, typical ingredients and techniques (such as soy sauce and stir-frying in a wok) continued to be used. The marked difference in a Cantonese-style curry, Frias explains, is the emphasis on freshness – vital to all cooking in this cuisine.
Cantonese aside, spicy curries are in fact popular throughout China, Frias adds. ‘Parts of China are extremely cold and people in those regions believe that when red chillies are eaten, they make the tongue and mouth numb and tingly. It helps to keep them warm.’ This directly contradicts the myth that curries are cooling, providing further grounds on which to dismiss this theory.
We’ll leave you with our own hot tip. Forget the theories, embrace the heat and flavour and find yourself a curry. There are plenty of innovative international options available across the city – we’ve rounded up some of our favourites on this page.