Food & Drink

A beginner's guide to the curries of the world

Curry is a nebulous, far-reaching term that's almost harder to define than irony. All it really takes to be labeled a curry is a spice blend rooted in the Indian curry tradition, so there are understandably an innumerable amount of variations across the globe.

We decided to dip our toe in the coconut milk-filled pool of curries worldwide and get the skinny on a few countries' notable takes. And since this was a lot of data to sift through, we brought in Dave DeWitt (food historian and author of A World of Curries), Maunika Gowardhan (Indian chef and food writer), and Lizzie Collingham (author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors) to back us up. This may only be the most basic of primers -- DeWitt counted 66different curry ingredients while he was writing his book -- but here are a few examples from 12 countries to get you started.

The country: India
The curry: Naturally, we begin at the birthplace of curry. No matter how far-flung from India, every nation's curry can trace its roots back to this subcontinental mothership. It should come as no surprise, then, that India has a staggering number of curries. Korma (a creamy dish made with coconut milk or yogurt) and biryani (rice dish that often includes ginger, garlic, and onions) are common examples most people will recognize, but Gowardhan also recommends a good paneer curry, which features India's version of cottage cheese.

The country: Malaysia
The curry: Owing to its close proximity to India, Malaysia was one of the early adopters of curry, picking the recipes up through spice merchants, according to Collingham. Wander the country's hawker stalls, and you'll find plenty of curry laksa (or curry mee), a noodle soup often featuring deep-fried tofu and bean sprouts. Or you can try the beloved nasi lemak, a curry with hard-boiled egg, anchovies, and chili paste.

The country: Thailand
The curry: Helpfully, some of the more famous Thai curries are color-coded. Kaeng kari (yellow curry) is a mild option traditionally served with cucumber relish, and kaengkhiao wan (green curry) is a much spicier dish owing to its green chilies. Meanwhile, kaeng phet (red curry) ditches the green chilies for red ones, in case you didn't figure that out. Other Thai picks include the potato and peanut-filled massaman curry and the sour kaeng som. Either way, you're usually in for a hearty helping of coconut milk and kaffir leaves.

The country: Indonesia
The curry: They're called gulai in Indonesia, and their star attraction might be collard greens, bison, or even fiddleheads -- which are ferns and not, contrary to popular belief, silly forest sprites from an unfinished Tim Burton script.

The country: Cambodia
The curry: You know a country's serious about its curry when it declares one variety the national dish, and that's exactly what Cambodia did with amok, the curry pictured above. If fish cooked in banana leaves isn't your bag, though, you can try num banh chok, a rice-noodle fish soup often served for breakfast. Bonus trivia: curries in Cambodia tend to come with a baguette, due to the lingering Frenchie influences.

The country: Vietnam
The curry: Like Cambodia, Vietnam also serves its curries with baguettes -- as it turns out, the French hung there for a while, too. But the most well-known dish here is probably the cari ga, or chicken curry, which utilizes one of your favorite Thanksgiving sides. Breathe easy, it's not green bean casserole -- it's sweet potatoes.

The country: UK
The curry: Frequently ranked as the Brits' favorite food, curry has fascinated the UK since the imperialist days. It's mutated a lot from the original Indian inspirations over the centuries -- Gowardhan points out that the most beloved British curry, chicken tikka masala, barely even resembles the butter chicken it's based on nowadays. But it's all part of the Anglo-Indian tradition, which has also produced distinctly UK spins such as the mayo-based coronation chicken

The country: South Africa
The curry: According to DeWitt, the curry influence in South Africa is primarily Malaysian, owing to the influx of Malaysian laborers in the region many moons ago. This translates into curries that generally feature lots of nuts and coconut milk, with the most distinctive example being bunny chow. Developed initially as a way to quickly, secretly serve black South African customers during the days of apartheid, bunny chow is curry dumped into a hollowed-out loaf that remains a massively popular fast-food item today.

The country: Trinidad & Tobago
The curry: Moving into the Western Hemisphere, the Caribbean also has a strong curry tradition, with Trinidad & Tobago being a prime example. Trini curries can skew a lot more extreme than their forebears -- some recipes ditch cayenne peppers for the exponentially hotter Scotch Bonnet chilies, for one. Local herbs like shado beni, which is sort of similar to cilantro, are also key players.

The country: Japan
The curry: Curry is practically as big as bizarre Kit Kats in Japan, which is kinda shocking since, as Collingham explains, the country has no colonial connections to India and basically shunned any food culture but its own for a long time. Still, curry managed to sneak in, and now manifests itself in such common forms as karee raisu (curry rice), karee udon (curried wheat noodles), and karee pan (curry stuffed inside a roll). Curry roux bars -- spice blocks you dump into a pot at home -- are also very popular.

The country: Pakistan
The curry: The Crock-Pot makes its glorious debut on this guide with the nihari, a slow-cooker curry popular in Pakistan. Throw in such illustrious ingredients as beef brisket, onions, red chile powder, and other seasonings and you've got yourself a stew Carl Weathers would be proud of.

The country: Sri Lanka
The curry: One of the more interesting examples from Sri Lanka, lamprais boasts both Indian and Dutch influences. Like the amok, this curried rice is cooked inside a banana leaf, but what gives it its edge is the non-negotiable frikkadels, or Dutch meatballs. In an equally ingenious move, Sri Lankans have a dish solely for their leftover curries, called koola'ya. Trust us, it's much better than the leftover "gumbos" you concoct with your fridge contents.

Kristin Hunt is a food/drink staff writer for Thrillist and might try stuffing her next massaman curry takeout in a bread bowl, because she likes South Africa's style. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.