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
Dried red chillies
Freshly grated coconut or freshly extracted coconut milk
Cloves and cinnamon
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
4. Food in history by Reay Tannahill