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The contentious origins of curry powder


It’s no secret that Indian food is bursting with all sorts of exciting flavours and spices. It feels as though every bite of well-cooked Indian food takes you on a trip down ancient spice routes, with all the vibrant colours, smells and sounds of authentic Indian flavour. 

Food plays a major role in Indian culture and London is lucky to have so much Indian food all over the city. When you take a step back and think about the history and significance of Indian spices and flavours it really does make you appreciate it that much more. One spice - or spice blend - has made us really wonder, however. It is a spice blend you will find in almost every Indian restaurant in the country but seldom in an actual Indian home. This hilariously non-Indian Indian spice mix is the very common ‘curry powder’. Most Indian recipes do call for a ‘garam masala’ mixture of spices and pastes but it tastes quite different to the current form of curry powder used at many British Indian restaurants. In fact, curry has even been adopted as a national dish in Britain, but its origins are difficult to pinpoint. 

The history of this blend, often used in Indian takeaways and restaurants in Britain, is an interesting one. The first use of this curry powder may date back to the 1780s, in an advertisement in the Morning Post newspaper in Britain. The ad stated that this “invaluable rich ingredient” was brought back from East Indies - or, British India at the time - by Solander, a Swedish naturalist on board Captain Cook’s expedition. Some suggest, however, that this could have just been a marketing ploy to sell the powder and make it seem more exotic than it actually was. 

By the 18th century, many Indian Sailors had started coming into England on ships and would often be made to work in low-paid jobs. Often it was cooks that were paid more than sailors, so many of these Indians would work as chefs. Many of them would cook traditional English food as well as Indian food, using the vibrant and flavoursome spices brought back on ships by British generals from India - but it was a mix specially made for the British palate. 

In fact, if we step back and think about ‘curry’ as a whole, we’ll find that it doesn’t really exist in India. Curry is not a real dish and neither is, therefore, curry powder. Indian foods do have many liquidy dishes best enjoyed with rice or bread, but they each have specific names and curry would then just refer to a broad set of these dishes - but no one in India would call it that! As such, each Indian dish uses a different blend and variation of spices and this also differs by region. 

In a country with food so complex it is therefore quite exciting that there are so many possibilities and we are not limited by a pre-set curry powder mixture (no matter how delicious it may be!)

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