Have you ever sat down to order and wondered what the exotic Indian curry names actually mean? Nope, those spicy Indian dishes weren't named by accident. Each one actually means something! In fact, some names (with a little loose translation) can give you a real clue about what an Indian dish will taste like. Today I'm going to go through some names of popular curries and give you a real insight into where the name of the dish comes from and what it is all about.
Are All Curries Indian?
Before discussing names, I need to get something out of the way right now.
Not all curries are Indian. India lies slap bang on the way from the East to the West, and as a result, there has been a lot of cultural blending that has taken place over centuries.
As a result, you'll see a lot of different Indian curry names with various influences, from regions such as Persia, Arabia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Portugal, and yes… Even the UK!
The history and background of Indian curry names are super diverse and actually loaded with a rich history (as well as tasty flavour).
Indian Curry Names | Origins, Background and History
Let's dig into some Indian curry (names) and see what they are all about. See if you can find your favourite on my list. You never know you might learn something: -
Ever wondered what Dopiaza is all about? It is one of those Indian curry names that should give you a real idea about the flavours involved.
Here's the thing.
Dopiaza is a curry dish that originates from the general area of what is now Iran and Afghanistan. The literal translation of 'dopiaza' is "two onions". And, as the name would suggest, this is exactly how it is made.
It is chunks of meat served in a rich onion gravy, to which fried onions are added.
If you want to know more about Dopiaza, check out my article here.
Fiery and just a little bit delicious jalfrezi is another one of those Indian curry names that relate directly to how the dish is cooked. Jalfrezi is a spicy dish of Bengali origin. There is a little bit of controversy surrounding its name.
Some sources say that the name 'jalfrezi' comes from an amalgamation of the Bengali words jhal and porhezi… which loosely translates as' spicy diet food'. However, other sources, which I'm more inclined to believe, state that 'jalfrezi' better translates as 'hot fry'… This makes more sense as it is an Indian recipe more akin to stir fry than a curry.
It features chunks of tender meat, fried quickly with things such as fresh chilli, garlic and ginger paste, and some crunchy onions and freshly chopped pepper.
Ah, this is one of my favourites (both in taste and where this Indian curry gets its name from).
There is a mistaken belief that the 'aloo' part of 'vindaloo' is because it normally contains a few chunks of potato.
Sorry to disappoint you folks, but that's not the case.
Vindaloo, or the basic recipe, was brought to the west Indian coast with Portuguese colonial sailors, where it was adapted to the Indian palette.
It should be noted that the traditional vindaloo you can eat in Goa is nothing like the fiery hot variety you'll see in authentic UK curry restaurants.
The name of the Indian curry, "vindaloo", actually comes from the Portuguese for 'wine and garlic'… Or, to say it in Portuguese, "vinho d'alhos" is a real nod to India's colonial past.
Rogan josh is a thick and flavorful curry full of oil. There are a few theories about where this Indian curry name comes from.
The most popular theory comes from Persian roots. Roughan means 'oily', and josh means 'stew' or perhaps 'simmer'. There is an alternative, though, that also has an Asian background and is equally believable.
In Urdu, roghan means 'to brown', and 'gost' means 'meat'. Browned meat? Yep, it sounds about right to me. You'll often see Indian curry names with slightly different spellings, and this is a prime example. Both rogan josh and Rogan gosht are exactly the same things
Rich, creamy and often a little bit sweet, korma is a curry for those who prefer milder dishes. This is another curry recipe whose name can be attributed to Urdu. The word qorma in Urdu means to stew or braise, which is probably how the dish was cooked in the Indian subcontinent.
This is a little bit of an ancient one. If you are looking for a curry fit for a king, this is it. It was traditionally prepared in the palace kitchens of the Mughals.
While you might associate Balti with the famous area of Birmingham, known as the 'Balti triangle', it is, in fact, another that has Portuguese origins.
If you've been served a balti, you won't fail to notice that it comes in a sort of small wok… Often referred to as a balti dish. And this is a nod to how it was cooked (with some suggesting that the curry should be cooked in the dish it is served in!).
There is more to it than that.
The word 'Balti' sounds suspiciously like the Portuguese word 'balde', which means 'large bowl' or perhaps 'bucket'.
So next time you are hungry, be sure to order a bucketful of curry.
Ah a lovely red tikka masala! Perfect.
Tikka masala is actually a clash of cultures. Some people say it originated in the UK.
Putting that debate aside for the moment, we can take a good look at what the term tikka masala actually means. The word 'tikka' actually originates from the Punjab region of India. It roughly translates as 'chunk' or 'cube'… if you've ordered chicken tikka, you'll already know that it is boneless chunks of meat, grilled to perfection.
Masala is the Indian term for 'spice mix'. You can have garam masala, chat masala, and of course tikka masala. They all vary depending on the spices used.
The original Dhansak of old is a far cry from what you'll be served in an Indian restaurant. This dish is normally a little bit spicy with a thick sauce made from vegetables and lentils. Yet, these ingredients do give an (albeit subtle) nod to its past.
This is a dish that is Persian in background. 'Dan' in Farsi means' cereal' or 'grain', and Sak (a Gujurati word) means cooked vegetables. Lentils and vegetables? Does that sound somewhat familiar?
Dhansak is normally a fairly sweet dish, and it can be really rich.
I've written a detailed guide on Dhansak here.
Ah, one that isn't mired in controversy and translations.
Madras has to be one of my favourite curries of all time. Unlike the other Indian curry names on my list, Madras doesn't refer to a cooking style. Instead, it refers to the region where the dish first originated from. But you won't find it on any modern map.
Because Madras was its colonial name and was shed in 1996 and is now called Chennai.
It doesn't get much more authentic for some truly Indian cuisine (with a name to match) than biryani. This has an Indian name to match, although I love that 'BIR' also stands for 'British Indian Restaurant'.
This is another Indian curry name that could have a few origins. However, they are both Persian in the background.
Birinj simply means 'rice' in Persian, which could be where biryani gets its name. Still, another Persian word 'biryan' means 'roast'… I prefer the first explanation, considering that biryani is a dish made mostly of spicy rice. (They definitely don't roast it).
Check out my spice guide to biryani. It's a great one if you want to go mild.
Who'd have thought Indian curry names could be so interesting.
Want to know a real favourite?
No, I mean it literally. The Urdu word 'Pasande' literally translates as 'favourite'. And after you have given it a try, it might very well be yours.
Pasanda is a really mild curry that is quite similar to the korma. It is normally really sweet and contains a fair amount of nuts (usually almonds).
I've got plenty of good advice on mild curries. If you are looking for something non-spicy, swing by my dedicated guide to the mildest curries.
So, what's in a name? Well, when it comes to Indian curry names, quite a lot. You'll find all sorts of influences! Curry names refer to the style of cooking, the region they are from and sometimes the ingredients used. Next time you are tucking into a tikka, you'll be able to impress your friends. While you are here, why not head over to some of my other articles. I discuss loads of things, from the health benefits of curry all the way to how to wrap a samosa!