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A Brief History of Curry and How to Make Curry Paste From Scratch

Foodstuff is a freelance food writer who has been exploring the art of fermentation. Traditional Chinese preserves is her latest project.

Kari Kapitan served with white bread. Image: © Siu Ling Hui

Kari Kapitan served with white bread. Image: © Siu Ling Hui

A crime of passion was perpetrated on India's gloriously diverse and complex cuisine some time in the 17th century, and its effects have been felt ever since. Curry powder, the ultimate insult to Indian cuisine, was created as an export commodity for the nabobs of the Raj and employees of the East India Company employees returning to England, many if not all of whom had developed a fatal attraction to India's spiced and sauced dishes. To paraphrase Indian food writer Madhur Jaffrey: curry powder is about as Indian as chop suey is Chinese.

The word curry is a British corruption of the Tamil word kari, meaning sauce. It came to be used as a blanket term for all Indian foods cooked in a sauce and has since been extended to include all Asian spiced, stewed dishes. A common misconception is that spicy means incendiary heat. However, chillies did not enter India (or Thai) cookery until the 16th century.

Curries, along with piquant Worcestershire sauce, chutneys and pickles, were all the rage in Victorian England. The then common British version of curry was meat cooked with curry powder, onions, apples and desiccated coconut, finished off with cream and lemon juice. Somewhere along the line, sultanas got thrown in as well.

The convenience of curry powder popularised curries but equally led to their being relegated to the role of using up leftovers. David Burton records in The Raj At Table that a Mr Arnot of Greenwich suggested that anything could be curried—“old shoes should even be delicious, some old oilcloth or stair carpet not to be found fault with (gloves if much worn are too rich)”. The French never came to grips with curry. Their idea of a curried dish was meat, poultry, eggs or fish dressed with a white sauce flavoured with a touch of curry powder.

Curry spices: Black pepper, coriander seeds, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds; dried chillies, chilli powder, caraway seeds, saffron strands, white peppercorns, turmeric powder, fenugreek powder and seeds. Image:  © Paul_Cowan -

Curry spices: Black pepper, coriander seeds, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds; dried chillies, chilli powder, caraway seeds, saffron strands, white peppercorns, turmeric powder, fenugreek powder and seeds. Image: © Paul_Cowan -

How to Use Curry Powder

Curry powder will never give the same results as a freshly ground spice paste, but it has the advantage of convenience. You can get a very respectable dish if you use a quality brand and the blend appropriate for the main ingredient. The ready-made mixtures tend to be for Indian, Malay or Nonya curries. The spices used for a meat curry are different from those used for fish. Hence you'll find that separate curry powder mixtures for meat and fish.

Check the use-by-date before you buy to ensure that the curry powder hasn't been sitting on the shelf for years. Once you've opened the packet, always store in an air-tight container in a cool dry place and use it up as soon as possible. Ground spices lose their fragrance very quickly. To make a curry using curry powder:

  • Blend a few tablespoons of the powder with a little water to make a paste. Fry some chopped onions until golden and then add the curry powder paste and fry until fragrant. Depending on what style of curry you are making, you might also add other aromatic herbs like curry leaves (for a South Indian style curry) or perhaps a bruised stalk of lemongrass (if you are making a Malay or Nonya style curry).
  • Once the spices are fragrant, add your meat or chicken and toss to coat thoroughly with the paste. Fry for a few minutes and then add coconut milk.

There are some dishes where curry powder is preferred over a spice paste. With curry puffs, for example, the diced meat and potatoes for the filling are always tossed with curry powder, never a curry paste. Curry powder also serves as a flavouring ingredient in dishes like Singapore Fried Rice Noodles and curried egg for sandwich fillings.

How to Use Curry Pastes

There has been a proliferation of ready-to-use curry pastes over recent years. You can now find pastes for just about every type of curry: Thai green, red and massaman pastes; various Indian curries from vindaloo, madras through to butter chicken; Indonesian rendang pastes; etc.

They come in jars, pouches or frozen packs. As with curry powder, the quality varies. (There are some really bad ones out there with more additives and thickeners than spices!) Even amongst the good brands, there are flavour variations for a single type of curry paste as every producer has his or her proprietary combination of spices, just as every chef has his or her own take on a dish. Try them out to decide which you like best.

With most of these ready-to-use pastes, the aromatics like onions, ginger, garlic etc have already been added and the pastes have been cooked to develop the flavour. So all you have to do is add the meat or fish and appropriate liquid such as coconut milk or water. However, do read the ingredient list and the instructions as to check if you need to fry up some onions before adding the paste or add kaffir lime leaves or lemon grass etc.

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Read More From Delishably

Despite the convenience of quality curry pastes, nothing beats a curry made from freshly roasted spices blended freshly pounded or ground onions, garlic, ginger and other aromatics and then gently fried with loving care and attention for full flavour development. In addition, there is such a vast universe of curries that it seems a shame to restrict yourself to the most "commercially popular" (which obviously is what manufacturers focus on).

It's not difficult to make up your own spice pastes especially with the convenience of food processors and electric grinders. Purists will insist on the use of mortar and pestle as the pounding (rather than the cutting action of blades) makes for a superior paste. But that does take a lot of effort and time and better to have a fresh made paste with electrical appliances than not at all.

You can also make double or triple the quantity of spice paste and freeze the excess for use in the future. Fry the paste, allow it to cool and then wrap in clingfilm and freeze. I always do this with curry pastes that require the use of Asian red shallots as part of the base such as the Kari Kapitan (recipe below). These shallots are not always available in Melbourne, Australia and when they are around, I make the most of it.

How to Make Curry Paste Quickly

  • Buy spices in whole rather than powdered form. The powders lose their fragrance very quickly. Roast the whole spice in a small pan just before grinding to bring out their fragrance.
  • Use a food processor for grinding chillies, garlic and onions. Cut the chillies up and onions into small pieces. Fit the food processor with the steel blade and with the machine running, drop the pieces progressively through the feed tube.
  • The food processor is not effective for grinding tougher herbs like lemongrass and rhizomes like ginger, galangal and turmeric. These are best cut up and then ground with a herb grinder and then added to the rest of paste in the food processor.
  • If you don't have a herb grinder, use the spice grinder. Always wash the grinder out immediately after you have processed lemongrass. The acidity will rust your blade. Alternatively, you can use a microplane grater to grate rhizomes and add the finely grated ginger etc to the onion paste in the food processor.
Opor Ayam, an Indonesian dish of chicken in spiced coconut sauce. No chillies used in this "curry".  Image: © Siu Ling Hui

Opor Ayam, an Indonesian dish of chicken in spiced coconut sauce. No chillies used in this "curry". Image: © Siu Ling Hui

Curry Recipes

Here are two examples of chicken curries. I will add more curry recipes to this article over time. As you'll see, curries are not necessarily accompanied by rice. Thick cut slices of white bread as excellent with the Kari Kapitan, a Hainanese chicken curry that is a speciality of Penang.

Opor Ayam

There are many Indonesian spicy stews but only a few are terms kare. This Javanese dish is a perfect illustration of curry misconceptions. While no Indonesian would call the following chilli-less, fragrantly spiced white stew of chicken a curry, it's usually described as such on menus. Such is the synonymity of incendiary heat with curry that one uninformed restaurant critic wished the impossible in his review - he would have liked it "hotter"!


  • a 1.2 to 1.5 kg chicken, preferably organic corn-fed
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons oil for frying
  • 600 ml thick coconut milk
  • 2 daun salam (Indonesian bay leaves)
  • 1 stem lemongrass (white section only), lightly bruised
  • 4 to 5 cm cinnamon stick
  • 1 tablespoon thick tamarind extract
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • Fried shallots for garnish

Spice Paste

  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 6 kemiri nuts (candlenuts), chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • Small knob (approx. 20 grams) fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 4 to 5 cm (approx. 7 to 8 grams) fresh galangal
  • 3 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
  • 1 teaspoon salt


  1. Chop chicken into casserole-sized pieces. Pound the spice paste ingredients to a fine paste with a mortar and pestle or grind them in a coffee grinder (which should be kept only for grinding spices!) A food processor can be used but it doesn't give as fine a paste. (See tips for making curry pastes above).
  2. Rub the paste evenly over the chicken pieces and set aside to marinate for at least an hour.
  3. Heat oil in a large heavy casserole. Fry the chicken pieces over moderate heat until they start to colour.
  4. Add coconut milk, daun salam, lemongrass and cinnamon. Simmer, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour or until the chicken is tender. Stir in the tamarind extract and salt to taste and simmer for a few more minutes.
  5. Remove whole spices. Serve hot, garnished with fried shallots, with steamed rice.

Serves 4 accompanied with a vegetable dish.

Kari Kapitan, a Hainanese curry from Penang. Image: © Siu Ling Hui

Kari Kapitan, a Hainanese curry from Penang. Image: © Siu Ling Hui

Kari Kapitan

This Hainanese curry is a speciality of Penang. Many of the cooks for the British in Malaya were of Hainanese origin. The apocryphal tale behind the name of this dish is that a ship's captain asked his cook what was for dinner that night. And the cook replied, "Curry, Kapitan!"

The aromatic spice paste is built primarily on fresh ingredients. As you can see, it doesn't include any of the seed spices usually found in curry pastes such coriander, cumin etc. A generous amount of belachan (dried shrimp paste) is essential.

Asian red shallots make a huge difference to the flavour of this curry. You can substitute onions but the dish loses much of its characteristic flavour. If you can't find these red shallots, French shallots or Golden Shallots would be preferable to onions.

Kari Kapitan is a medium-dry curry with a rich red colour. That means a lot of chillies so to keep it mild, choose big chillies with rounded ends. The general rule of thumb is that the more pointy the tip of the chilli, the hotter it is.


Serves 4 with rice and vegetable side dish.


  • a 1.5 kg chicken, preferably organic corn-fed
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons oil for frying
  • 400 ml of coconut milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • juice of 1 lime (or lemon)
  • fried shallots for garnish

Spice Paste

  • 350 grams Asian red shallots
  • 10 fresh red chillies (approx 100 - 120g)
  • 10 large dried chillies, soaked in hot water until softened
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 cm chunk ginger (approx 10 - 12g)
  • 4 cm fresh turmeric (approx 8 -10g)
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, white portion only
  • 6 candlenuts
  • 0.5 cm thick slice belachan (dried shrimp paste) (approx 20 grams)


  1. Joint and chop the chicken into casserole-size pieces.
  2. To prepare the spice paste ingredients: Cut the belachan into thin slices. Dry roast the slices in a small frying pan over moderate heat until crisp and dry. (Warning: Belachan has a very pungent scent when roasted. You either love it or hate it.) Grind to a fine powder.
  3. Cut the lemongrass into very thin slices.
  4. Grind all the spice paste ingredients together to get a reasonably smooth paste. It doesn't have to be superfine as bits of chilli appearing in the sauce is quite characteristic of this curry.
  5. Heat the oil in a large heavy casserole over moderate heat. When the oil starts to smoke lightly, add the spice paste. Gently fry until the paste is fragrant and starts to release oil.
  6. Add the chicken pieces and toss to coat evenly with the spice paste. Fry for a few minutes until the chicken pieces start to change colour.
  7. Add the coconut milk, ground white pepper and sea salt to the casserole. There should be enough liquid to barely cover the chicken pieces. Add a bit of water if necessary. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, over low heat for 30 - 40 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Stir occasionally.
  8. Stir in the lime (or lemon) juice. Check the seasoning and adjust to taste.
  9. Serve hot, garnished with fried shallots. This dish goes well with rice as well as chunky slices of white bread. Note: I strongly recommend using good artisanal white bread that has the body to absorb the curry sauce without turning into a cotton wool mush. I use a homemade milk loaf (pain au lait) for this curry.

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