At their first state dinner, the Obamas served guests green curry prawns. Now, some people think curry is a spice. Others say it's a blend of spices; a sauce, a gravy or even a leaf.
They would all be right. As I discovered recently after talking with a local expert on the subject, curry is something that may have started in the Far East, but it has migrated well beyond those original borders to encompass menus as far flung as Ireland and Jamaica.
To those who think they've made their final decision about how they feel regarding "curry," think again. In her new book, "Curry: A Global History," local writer Colleen Taylor Sen says the definition is broad.
"Basically, I defined curry as any dish - meat, vegetable or fish - with a gravy that is flavored with Indian or Southeast Asian spices; that's the first definition, and it would be served with some kind of a starch, be it rice, bread, taro root. And the second definition is a dish flavored with curry powder," said Sen.
There's usually coriander, cumin and tumeric for coloring, maybe some chiles and fenugreek. In Jamaica, goat curry is a popular celebratory dish, and it's always on the menu at Jamaica Jerk in Rogers Park.
"It would have the basic spices -- coriander, cumin and chilies -- but it would also have some green herbs and it would also have allspice, and allspice of course is a typically Jamaican spice that did not come from the Old World," Sen said.
Curry also plays a major role in Thai cuisine, and some restaurants, like Thai Pastry in Uptown, make their complex curry paste from scratch, rather than get it from a jar.
"Thailand has a very sophisticated cuisine that is originally connected to the Royal Court, and there you have a basic curry paste, which typically would have shrimp paste, and it may have chilies, and coriander and ginger and then to add to that you would add various spices that would give each curry it's distinctive character," said Sen.
Fish sauce is expected, and sometimes even coconut milk will be used to temper the heat. At Thai Pastry, about 20 ingredients come together to form a classic chicken green curry, which is spooned over white rice.
Sen couldn't find any Malaysian, African or Japanese curry in Chicago for the book, but down in Daley Plaza this month, during the Christkindlmarket, a few vendors are selling "German curry sausage" which is essentially grilled sausage that's been sliced; doused in sauce then sprinkled with curry powder. Even the Irish have a tradition of curry consumption, as she found out at The Kerryman, an Irish pub in River North.
"Curry is a standard part of going out for a night on the town with "the lads," as they say, and the hotter the curry in the U.K. the better; and you have beer and you have curry."
"In Ireland, the same thing: you have pubs and curry is a standard item on Irish pubs. I don't think it's quite as hot as British curry," said Sen.
An Irish brand of curry powder is combined with chicken stock, then added to sauteed vegetables; the mixture is spooned over sliced chicken, buried within a well of white rice.
"And it's always certainly accompanied by beer," said Sen.
There are also curries in Japan, Malaysia, even Africa. And while the book is not a cookbook, per se, there are several recipes in it for various types of curries.
You can find Japanese curry at the food mall in Mitsuwa Market in Arlington Heights.
"Curry: A Global History"
By Colleen Taylor Sen
1631 W. Howard St.
4925 N. Broadway
Kerryman Bar & Restaurant
70 W. Erie St.
Traditional German Food
at Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza through Dec. 24th