Food & dining

Once hard to find, curries are now on menus everywhere

Commonwealth sous chef Nicholas Novotny and his  curried chicken salad sandwich.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Commonwealth sous chef Nicholas Novotny‘s curried chicken salad sandwich.

There might be some dissension among Indian-Americans regarding the authenticity of what the West considers curry, but almost everyone — Indian-Americans and others — agrees that curry is one of the most popular foods today.

Weston resident Dr. Amita Chopra remembers there being only a single establishment in the Boston area when she moved here where she could dine on the dishes she loved. “It was a restaurant called Natraj and the only place we could find Indian food,” says the pediatrician, who came in 1973. A few years earlier, Chandra Ganapathy, a Foxborough resident, recalls “going to the New York docks to pick up a shipment of Indian spices my parents had shipped.”

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Commonwealth sous chef Nicholas Novotny.

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Fast forward five decades, and Indian curries are becoming part of mainstream American cuisine. Recently, Lumiere owner Michael Leviton offered a soft-shell crab with curried snow pea salad, coriander-mint chutney, and cucumber raita in May. “I am not trying to cook Indian food,” says the Newton chef. “We are using French techniques, high-quality ingredients, and adding a little twist by incorporating traditional Indian flavors.”

The export of what the West knows as curry began on the Indian subcontinent in the 1700s, when it was a British colony. Cooks gauged the British palate and began creating toned-down versions of local dishes that were eventually taken back to England. The British view of curry was simplistic: The dish contained onions cooked with spices and made into a stew. Like the dish, the word curry is also a British invention, with its origins in the South Indian word “karil,” used to loosely describe the spice mixture in a dish.

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Here’s how Lizzie Collingham, a British historian and author of “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” describes it: “Curry to the world in general means a spicy, sauce-like dish with meat or vegetables that has its origins vaguely in South Asia.”

In India, curries vary by region, family, tradition, and season. The dish may or may not have a sauce. Spices are used whole or ground, raw or roasted, or combined with onions, garlic, chiles, or coconut to make a wet paste. The mixtures are always freshly prepared and may be added at the beginning, during, or end of the cooking process. The preparations are light, the ingredients fresh, the flavors subtle. Everyday curries often do not have a sauce and are simply tempered with cumin seeds, chiles, and curry leaves.

It isn’t clear when curry came to the United States, but in 1735, a restaurant called Cato’s Tavern in Manhattan, owned by a former slave who had bought his freedom, served curried oysters. “People came from all over the country to eat Cato’s oysters,” says Laura Kelley, author of “The Silk Road Gourmet.” “It was a time when the Americans and the British were scouring the globe for exotic flavors.”

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Curry powder, widely used by western cooks, doesn’t exist in Indian cuisine. The British brought spices back to England, which were initially mixed by pharmacies and sold as curry powder. There is still no universal recipe for curry powder, though most seem to contain cumin, chile, fenugreek, and turmeric, with a tendency to go heavy on the turmeric (hence the golden color of most dishes).

“Curry in America is just the curry powder,” says Dr. Chopra. “You sprinkle it into anything and it becomes a curry.”

Nicholas Novotny, sous chef at Commonwealth in Cambridge, recently introduced a curried chicken salad with grapes, cilantro, and a walnut spread, which, he says, has been selling like “hot cakes.” He does use a powder and would love to try an authentic curry blend.

That would mean grinding all the spices himself.

Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at sena_desai@yahoo.com.
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