Curry – Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia

A curry-lover's delight

By Robyn Lewis
Subscribe to
Curry - Fragrant dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia

Curry - Fragrant dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia [©Penguin Books Australia]


Curry, the Anglicised version of kari, the Tamil word for sauce, is at the same time common but also rare: an almost universal dish. From Cape to Cairo, London to Lucknow, Aberdeen to Anchorage, Jamaica to Jaipur, you will find a curry in at least one of its many thousands of forms, served in countless restaurants, street stalls and homes.

Like many of its natural herb and spice ingredients – including ginger, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, pepper – curries most likely evolved in Asia, probably in many places. Spices not only made food tastier, they reputedly act as a mild preservative and antibacterial agent, important in hot climates pre-refrigeration, and for pickling.

Early Eastern traders carried such spices with them, introducing them to many faraway places – Africa, Europe and eventually to the Americas. The latter’s reciprocal contribution to the spice mix was chilli, without which modern curries and indeed entire national cuisines such as that of Thailand would be almost unthinkable.

Europe in the Middle Ages was a large importer of spices, and vast quantities of pepper, mace, cinnamon, cloves and more found their way into their meat dishes and desserts, washed down by copious quantities of ale and later claret. Indeed, spices were behind the formation of the world’s first private company, the Dutch East India Company in 1600.

Later in the 1800s the taste for spicy food was further bolstered by the return of the British nabobs from India and other Oriental outposts – the first curry cookbooks were produced at that time, as men who had spent decades of their lives in the subcontinent endeavoured to teach their wives and servants how to recreate the Raj and make their food at least passably spicy. Curry was certainly in the West to stay.

But enough of history – where are curries at today? Many people first experience curries at their local Indian restaurant, which depending of the origins and ability of the chef, might be good, or not. A proportion of these play on the locals’ ignorance and serve a variety of meats in the same sauces (with different names of course), overdo the chilli and underdo the true spice mixes in a combined appeal to macho bravado and an uneducated palate. The ‘ring of fire’ is not necessarily the sign of a good curry. And uncooked spice added last most definitely is not.

So what is? Firstly, it depends on the country of origin, and Curry – Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia excels in this regard, although its title omits to mention that it includes contributions from Pakistan (where curries are less complex and allow the food flavours to shine through more), Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore, the Indochinese nations, plus the ‘outposts’ of Africa, the Caribbean, Britain and even Japan (and yes, they do have curries in China too, although none in this volume).

Most people associate curry foremost with India. The North Indian section is written by Vivek Singh, founder of The Cinnamon Club in London where Indian and Western cuisines successfully meet in a modern culinary marriage. However, in Curry his recipes are traditional, of Rajastan, the Punjab and Delhi, Lucknow and Awadh and Bengal. He notes that under some of the wealthy Mughal rulers of the north – Muslim invaders who ruled most of India from around 1500 to 1700 – great levels of culinary sophistication were achieved, and the best chefs enjoyed a status that has only recently been re-established, firstly with the great French chefs like Escoffier and currently with our crop of global celebrity chefs. Mughul dishes were created not only to outdo in taste and degree of accomplishment, but in hospitality, status and wealth.

However as with all of Asia, particularly before roads and modern communications, every region, village and even home has its recipe variations, and the cooking was influenced by the seasons, the climate and what grows there, as well as religious and socio-economic status. The dishes he gives here include the basics, like spice marsala (simply meaning spice mix), breads like naan and paratha, the usual vegetarian, chicken, lamb or goat curries, through to some interesting variants on game, which was once the preserve of princes allowed to hunt, but now can be readily purchased.

There’s also a delicious looking recipe for curried riverfish for anyone looking for something to do with carp other than use as fishballs or fertiliser, and several for seafood.

The rabbit and quail curries (which can also use hare or pheasant), and chicken with morel show what we’ve been missing out on at our ‘local Indian’, and perhaps indicate the direction in which modern Indian cuisine is headed, towards some new and more subtle taste experiences.

South India including Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and also Sri Lanka get lengthy and experienced treatment by Das Sreedharan, the founder chef of Rasa restaurants in London, who states that South Indian food is in fact simpler than that of northern India, using fewer spices and with more emphasis on the main ingredients themselves. Here, seafood shines – most coastal people in these regions eat fish curry at least once per day – plus the use of more tropical ingredients like coconut.

Mahmood Akbar introduces us to the curries of Pakistan, a country with over 160 million people whose curries are also more about allowing the ingredients to speak. Akbar trained in the US and the Hilton hotel chain through Asia, before establishing the now famous Salt ‘n Pepper Village restaurants in Lahore and Karachi. His guiding philosophy is that all food is purchased fresh each morning and consumed the same day, although don’t let that deter if you don’t have bountiful markets but are more reliant on the freezer, like me – the recipes look great.

And thus to South East Asia, where I once lived and became something of a curry chef myself. I have over 100 books on Asian cooking alone, such is the diversity of its cuisine. Their languages have different words for hot, as in temperature hot and chilli hot, to which some also have a third for spicy hot. Regional variations reign supreme, and a dry curry dish such as Malaysia’s rendang is different in each State, as are Indonesian curries on each island.

Books like Curry can only really scratch the surface, and indeed despite its subtitle Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines receive relatively scant attention, although the recipes selected by award-winning cookbook author Sri Owen are good ones, and will give you a taste of what these countries can offer the curry lover should you wish to delve further.

Thai food guru David Thomson, founder nearly two decades ago of the famous Darley Street Thai in Sydney and of Nahm in London in 2001, compiled the wonderful Thai section of Curry. The Thai word for curry is geng, which has a much looser meaning than its English equivalent, meaning a liquid seasoned with pastes, and can include soups and braised dishes. But when the paste is spicy it comes closer to our understanding of the word curry.

Thomson’s recipes range from the simple everyday sour orange curry (which can be made from almost any fish and green vegetable combination) through increasing complexity and number of ingredients to the mussaman (Muslim) curry where up to twenty ingredients go into the paste alone. He includes the now-ubiquitous Thai red and green chicken curries, made from scratch not jars.

But don’t be deterred; the second and third principles of cooking a good curry, that of doing things in the right order, and techniques of spice frying and mixing, are well covered. The recipes are explained from first principles, each country or region’s section has a very good glossary and most recipes have photos of the finished dishes for those unfamiliar with the intended outcome.

Indeed, Curry is one the better introductions to this form of Asian cooking that I have seen – far better than the old Penguin guides which had complexity but no illustrations and little explanation – and unlike some of its more recent predecessors, it’s not dumbed down to pander to the former scarcity of ingredients in Western stores, or our perceived tastes.

For the more widely we travel, the more we seek authenticity and to recreate (or find) it back home, and thus relive the memories. We’re increasingly familiar with Laos, Cambodia and of course Vietnamese cuisines also, and New-York based Corinne Trang, dubbed the ‘Julia Child of Asian Cuisine’ has included in this section a rich array of curries often garnished with dill, introduced by the French colonists. These are very approachable recipes and would be a good introduction for those not fully accustomed to the intensity of Thai food.

Lastly there are sections on the curry ‘outposts’ of the world: Africa, the Caribbean, Britain (where its own curry cuisine has evolved, including chicken korma and tikka marsala) and – to me a surprise – Japan, compiled by experts such as Roopa Gulati, Deputy Editor of UKTV Food, food and travel writer/adventurer Judy Bastyra and Yasuko Fukuoka, a musician, composer and lover of Japan’s regional culinary specialities and cultures. These include dishes from South African Malay-influenced bobotie to Kenyan fish curry and Trinidad’s ‘river lime’ curry duck.

Interestingly Japanese curries might be the nearest thing to fusion cooking in Curry, using a ingredients such as ‘curry roux’ (pre-purchased in solid blocks like chocolate), dashi stock and noodles, and even crumbed pork cutlets with a curry sauce containing apples and mushrooms, about as far from sushi as you can imagine. Let no-one say that curries aren’t adaptable.

The book concludes with a handy list of suppliers in the UK and Australia, although anyone outside major centres will have to forage locally or online for the more obscure ingredients.

Another rule of good curry making – buy your spices in their raw state, and roast (dry-fry) enough of them for short-term use, separately. Store these newly roasted spices in individual containers (you can vacuum pack the balance unroasted if you buy in large quantities) and then mix them in proportions given by the chosen recipe. It vastly simplifies the curry-making process if you have all your ingredients ready at the start. And fry them in oil first – nothing gives away the novice curry-maker more than the taste of uncooked spices, which somehow never meld into that rich finished product that you are trying to create.

What to drink? Curry provides no advice at all. Apart from water, beer is the obvious choice, although I suspect this is as much because of its relatively low alcohol content as any heat-slaking abilities. Chilled white wines that are more fragrant than fruit-driven, and/or with some residual sugar, can be excellent with curries; try sauvignon blanc, less-dry Rieslings, gewürtztraminer and even pinot grigio/gris. Again, look for low alcohol wines, and keep expensive pinot noirs and tannic, rich reds for another day, although that said I’ve had some good pinot-lamb curry combinations. Sparking shiraz is another red wine to try with curry.

No doubt as our sophistication with Asian food in general and curry-making in particular increases via books such as Curry – Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, so will our wine- and beer-matching skills become more specific, with some ‘oh wow’ moments ahead. Meanwhile, this is a book whose careful selection of mouth-watering recipes you will enjoy.


Curry - Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is edited and published by Dorking Kinderley Australasia, Victoria (pb, revised Australian edition 2010, original © 2006. 352pp) and retails for RRP A$39.95.

Subscribers of and Winepros Archive can purchase Curry - Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia at 12.5% discount via our book partners Seekbooks (postage extra).


Our Recommendations

To see our recommendations, ratings and reviews you must be a logged-in subscriber.

To subscribe please enter your email address in the "Subscribe Now - it's Free" box on the right and click the "Join" button, or fill in this form >

April 14th, 2010
Subscribe today - it's free
Subscribe Button

Subscribe now - for news and reviews, our newsletter (optional), to join our forums, and more.

Enter your email address and click the Subscribe button. We respect your privacy.

Log in

Enter your username...

Enter your password...

Log In Button

Forgotten your password?


Kerry's corner - your free benefits


Mornington Peninsula (Vic): Peninsula Summer Music Festival - 1-10 Jan 2020

Jancis Robinson

This summer, the Mornington Peninsula will once again be filled with the sounds of world-class music at the annual Peninsula Summer Music Festival »