Curry Around the World

The word "curry" appears on menus at restaurants all across the globe — so what is it, exactly? 

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A Beginner's Guide

Curry's a little word with a lot of meaning (at its most basic, it means "sauce," so, yes, Bolognese is also a curry). Here's a starter kit to deciphering what you're getting, depending on the kind of restaurant you are in.

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By Rupa Bhattacharya for Food Network Kitchen

At a Thai Restaurant

Whole books have been written about Thai food's relationship to curries; here's the most-basic outline. The sort of Thai curries that you commonly see in restaurants are made by combining curry pastes with coconut milk and then simmering meat and vegetables in the mixture. Yellow curry paste is made just with shrimp paste and lemongrass. Green and red curry pastes have a similar base: They're both made with chiles, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, cilantro roots and coriander seeds (and sometimes also shrimp paste, depending on the kind you get). Green curry uses fresh chiles, while red curry uses dried. Massaman curry adds warm spices (like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and cloves) to the red curry paste base; it's usually served with non-pork meat. Penang curry adds peanuts to the base and palm sugar to the final stew, resulting in a sweeter, milder and richer curry.

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At a West Indian or Caribbean Restaurant

You'll have the option of curry chicken, goat, shrimp or vegetables, and what that gets you is a rich, spicy stew with a curry powder backbone and the notable additions, usually, of allspice and Scotch bonnet chiles. It'll often be served with rice and peas, flatbread or, depending on region, cou cou (a soft cornmeal pudding). Quick language note: Here, it's almost always "curry chicken" (or "curry goat" or "curry shrimp") and not "chicken curry."

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At an Indian Restaurant

Unless you're in the UK, most Indian restaurant dishes aren't called "curry," but almost all of them are curries. Indian curries can be dry (the sauce is cooked down to coat the main ingredients) or wet (closer to a stew texture than a soup one). A few key words to know: "Korma" usually means tomatoes, onions and yogurt; "saag" means spinach; anything "dal" is made with lentils; and anything "makhani" is made with butter (so "makhani dal" is buttery lentils). Anything "dopiaza" is made with onions, and anything "karahi" is stir-fried (a karahi is a bowl-shaped pan about the size of a wok). Most things "Mughlai," "Shahi" or "Kashmiri" will have nuts and cream; Kashmiri and Shahi dishes also often include dried fruit. "Masala" is a word used for a spice mix and can therefore imply literally anything within that realm (chana masala is chickpeas with a spice mix; bhindi masala is sauteed okra; and chicken tikka masala is chunks of chicken in a creamy spiced gravy). Get everything, and eat it with rice or naan. 

 Indian food doesn't call for the yellow-brown stuff one traditionally pictures as "curry powder," which was a 19th-century British attempt to replicate Indian flavors. That said, plenty of curries from around the world, representing real, genuine curry traditions, now do. 

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At an Indonesian Restaurant

Curry rendang (sometimes just called "rendang") is a coconut milk-based, long-cooked dish usually made with beef. It's made with a fresh curry paste that contains garlic, ginger, galangal, chiles, spices and lemongrass, which is then combined with coconut milk and the meat; it's cooked extendedly and stirred frequently, until almost all the moisture is gone from the liquid. The meat then fries in the rendered fat, and the dish is ready when it's crisp-tender and very dry. It's served with rice or steamed rice cakes.

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At a Japanese Restaurant

In Japan, curry is one of the ultimate comfort foods. It's usually made from instant curry roux blocks (basically, a combination of curry powder and flour, which you can find in Japanese grocery stores) with the addition of vegetables (often including potatoes) and optional meat. It's served either over rice or noodles (in which case it's called curry udon), along with a side of pickled mixed vegetables to cut the richness. Katsu curry, a popular variant, adds a breaded pork or chicken cutlet on top of the curry rice.

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At a Malaysian Restaurant

You might see curry puffs as an appetizer — they're little pastries packed with thick chicken and potato curry, then either fried or baked. You might also see curry laksa, which is a coconut-milk-and-curry-powder-based noodle soup that usually contains veggies, fish balls, tofu puffs, and meat or seafood.

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At a Chinese Restaurant

Odds are, it won't be called "curry" on the menu, but anything called "Singapore" is going to feature curry powder. The most-common example is Singapore noodles, a curry-bombed rice noodle stir-fry.

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At a Ladies-Who-Lunch Bistro

You're probably looking at a curried chicken salad, which is a classic chicken salad (chicken, mayo, celery) with the addition of curry powder and usually a sweet fruit element like apples, raisins or grapes.

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On the Streets of Berlin

You're looking at a currywurst, which is a hot dog (usually skinless), cut into slices, topped with curry-powder-spiked-ketchup, and served with fries and a plastic fork for spearing. Eat it while standing to soak up the beer after a night out.

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