“Kari”, South India and a Festival

There have been many instances in the context of food when I’ve been asked if I eat meat given that I’m from India and in particular from South India. I don’t find this perception as surprising now as I did awhile ago probably because I’ve become accustomed to it. However, it never fails to remind me how much I’ve enjoyed eating meat prepared in so many different ways while growing up in India.


The word curry that now loosely refers to any Indian style sauce especially in the western world, is described to have derived from the Tamil word, kari, meaning black pepper according to some historians2 or a lightly spiced sauce according to others4. In contemporary Tamil Nadu, kari, instead, in many contexts refers to meat, as in: kari kadai (meat shop); in conversation, “Are we having kari (meat) for dinner?” or in reference to meat in traditional cookbooks. This meaning of kari as meat seems consistent with pre-Aryan (earlier than circa 1750-1200 BCE) Tamil references to: black pepper marinated and fried meat as thallita-kari; simply fried meat as pori-kari; or meat boiled with pepper and tamarind as pulin-gari2. Perhaps it is a matter of local vernacular and evolution of language but the tamil dictionary refers to meat as iraicci.

Nevertheless, here is a method1 to make a popular dish of meat in sauce, referred to as kari (meat) kozhambu (sauce) by many in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu:

Bone-in meat (lamb for instance) cut into pieces - bone-in with marrow is even better




Coriander seeds

Dried red chillies

Freshly grated coconut or freshly extracted coconut milk

Cloves and cinnamon




Lemon (optional)

Coriander leaves

Marinate meat for at least an hour or more in a refrigerator with a mixture containing equal parts freshly grated ginger and garlic, some yogurt, salt and turmeric, using a quantity of marinade that is just enough to coat the meat. Heat oil in a heavy-bottom pan, season with a small piece of cinnamon and few cloves, and then sauté some sliced onions until they turn golden brown. To this, add a mixture of toasted and freshly ground coriander seeds and dried red chillies – adjust quantity according to taste. Add marinated meat and sauté at moderate heat before adding some water to just cover the mixture. Cook covered at low heat until the meat becomes tender. Just before the meat is done add some freshly grated coconut or coconut milk and cook a little longer or until the coconut incorporates into the sauce. Check for seasoning, add some freshly squeezed lemon juice if needed, and finally garnish with freshly chopped coriander leaves just before serving with rice.

Only 31% of Indians are vegetarians, and the proportion of vegetarians in coastal south India ranges from 2% to 8% depending on region3. The people of India ate a wide variety - about fifty different kinds - of meats in ancient times3. Kapilar, a priest from the Sangam period of Tamil Nadu (circa 300 BC-300 AD) writes about the enjoyment of eating meat, while a text from the same period refers to meat and rice being enjoyed during festival days2.


The second day of the harvest festival Pongal that occurs around mid-January, is a day that since childhood, I associate with eating kari kozhambu with family.



1. Recipe adapted from Mrs. Preethalakshmi

2 a. Indian food: a historical companion by KT Achaya

2 b. India by Jayanta Sengupta, in Food in Time and Place: the American Historical Association

Companion to Food History edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E Chaplin and Ken Albala

3.   In reference to The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey in The Hindu, August 14,  


4.   Food in history by Reay Tannahill

Related post: 

A celebration of rice


11 thoughts on ““Kari”, South India and a Festival

  1. Jeff

    This reminds me of cold, quiet winter nights in the UK, popping across the street to the curry shop to have a late dinner. There's something comforting about "a curry," eaten alone or in the company of friends, and I hope to try the recipe described here. Thank you, Bala! Pongal-o-Pongal!

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you, Jeff. The transformation and anglicization of the word kari to curry has been attributed in significant part to the colonial British influence in India, as is the appearance and popularity of "curry shops" in the UK. It's interesting and good to know of how comforting the curry was to you during winter nights in the UK. Growing up in Madras, India I enjoyed eating kari kozhambu and other kari preparations throughout the year since the element of cold winter was absent. But, having experienced cold winters in the States, I can see how kari preparations especially the sauce versions will be that much more comforting.

      Pongal-o-Pongal to you, too!

  2. Bala very nice - as you said the connotations of eating Kari kozhambu on a cold day brings a different vision nad thoughts than one of eating it on a hot humid day. Just as FYI to refer to your quote of "Perhaps it is a matter of local vernacular and evolution of language but the tamil dictionary refers to meat as iraicci", - the Malayalam word for Meat is Erachi.

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you.

      Yes, I did come across the Malayalam word erachi to mean meat, however, I'm unsure when kari became iraicci or included iraicci as a synonym for meat, or about the linguistic and evolutionary relationship between these words. On a somewhat related note, some cookbooks of Tamil Nadu refer to meat as kari and others as iraicci - in my experience of having grown up in Madras, I don't recall meat being commonly referred to as iraicci. I would like to understand these relationships. Thank you for bringing it up.

  3. José Luiz Borges

    It seens delicious!
    Concerning language as you have said that kari used to mean meat, it is interesting to notice that latin for meat can be carnis or CARO according to the declension. In portuguese meat is carne and curry is caril although the word in english is more often used.

    José Luiz Borges

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you, José.

      Yes, it is interesting to note the Latin words for meat as is the Portugese word for it. As for curry being referred to as caril, I did come across (in reference 2a) that someone by the name Correa used caril to describe curry in 1502.

      Hugs to you, too.

      1. José Luiz Borges

        Portugueses Explorers arrifes at Goa in 1510 and have stayed there for four centuries. Caro and cari até phonetically similar.

        1. Bala

          Post author

          Yes, José the Portugese seemed to have moved to Goa in 1510. The 1502 reference to caril might have something to do with Vasco Da Gama's earlier arrival in India's southwestern coast (Calicut, Kerala, a neighbor of Tamil Nadu) in 1498 and the subsequent Portugese presence in the area until 1510 before moving to Goa.
          The phonetic similarity between caro and cari is interesting.

          Thank you.

  4. Sudha Sankar

    Bala, the photograph of the bone marrow is making my mouth water. Kari kuzhambu HAS to have one marrow bone thrown in - the prize for the baby of the house or that sibling that get's to it first.

    The fastidious cook also chooses the fire and the vessel to cook the kari kuzhambu carefully. A pressure-cooker- kuzhambu cooked on a gas stove tastes so different from a log-fire- kuzhambu cooked in metal or earthen ware pots. I recall the kuzhambu cooked by Bhai, the Muslim chef who would come home to cook for parties. He would cook out doors, on an open log fire - chicken biriyani and mutton kuzhambu and the entire neighborhood would smell like a party! My grandmother's recipe that my sister faithfully followed initially called for an earthenware pot over a log flame, but grandma came into the twentieth century along with her recipe using a pressure cooker! I am sure the flavor of the kari kuzhambu changed in the process.

    Having kari kuzhambu at home often had the surprise element of the vegetable in the kuzhambu. The choice of drumstick, radish, potato introduced it's own highly different flavor to the dish. My favorite was the unique green beans mutton curry that was made at my aunt's home in Ooty. The vegetables also brought an awareness of the season and the location in a time of low transportation and refrigeration. Double beans in Mysore, drumstick in Madras, and so on...

    Perhaps the vegetables are also added in an attempt to be frugal and to add quantity the kuzhambu to feed many hungry mouths. A half kilo grams ( 1lbs.) of mutton could comfortably feed a family of four or six! It was an indulgent family that purchased more than two bone marrow pieces for the kids of the house. But being the youngest or near the tail end of the kids I always came out a winner...

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you for writing this detailed and descriptive comment.

      I wish I could use an open-air wood burning fire and an earthen ware pot to cook! I agree completely that this method develops flavor in a very unique way compared to slow-cooking on a stove or using a pressure-cooker.

      I also agree that the accompanying vegetable in the kari kuzhmabu adds a different dimension of flavor - in this post I tried to keep the method simple. The connection of the vegetables with the season, transportation and refrigeration is interesting to learn. I especially like the version with double beans, followed by drumstick or radish. I've never tasted green bean in the kuzhambu - I am going to try this version.

      I agree with your theory that families might have also added vegetables to the kuzhambu to extend the dish to more people.

      I particularly liked reading your comment, " he would cook outdoors, on an open log fire...and the entire neighborhood would smell like a party!" It makes me want to smell and feel the moment.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Bala

    Post author

    Email comment from a friend in Paris, France:

    "Hi Bala
    this is incredible because this is the meal that ... wants to cook for the christian sacrament called "confirmation"...!!"


I look forward to reading your thoughts...