In the spring of 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and his crew docked their fleet at the port city of Calicut, India; months later, they sailed out again, their ships burdened with barrels of pepper, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Da Gama's journey was one of the most successful in the Age of Discovery, and introduced on a grand scale the spices of India and Asia to distant lands. Using these exotic and aromatic blends, chefs in cultures across the globe soon transformed simple stews of vegetables, meat, and seafood into rich and fragrant curries. It changed culinary history forever.
Unlike other dishes, though, curry defies definition. The word itself is derived from the Tamil word kari, which means sauce, and most curries contain meat, seafood, or vegetables. That's where the similarities end. In India, curry is characterized by rich sauces laden with spices, and made with cream or ghee, a clarified butter. In Thailand, curries are marked by the inclusion of lime, lemongrass, ginger, and coconut milk, while Caribbean curry is a relatively simple affair using seafood, vegetables, and a handful of spices.
Perhaps the one trait that makes curry curry, and not just a meat-and-vegetable stew, is its use of aromatic spices. There is no single spice named curry; the term refers to a blend of ground spices, usually some combination of turmeric, cardamom, coriander, cumin, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mustard, fenugreek, and pepper.
For most of us, our entire repertoire of curries has been confined to the creamy, spicy stews served in Indian restaurants, or the coconut milk-laced versions in Thai eateries. If you've never tried your own hand at curry making, give it a whirl. They're fairly simple to prepare even if the often-exhaustive list of spices can be intimidating.
Buy small quantities of spices in bulk to get started, and take great comfort in the fact that many of them have potent healing properties. And don't be afraid to experiment; bump up the cayenne for a fiery finish, or increase the cardamom and cinnamon for sweeter undertones.