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People from many cultures gather over fragrant bowls of spice-laced gravies that have come to be known as curries. The encyclopedia will tell you the term comes from the Tamil word “kari,” which translates to sauce. But you can’t use the generic and all-encompassing word without mentioning the role colonization played in the dish’s evolution and spread. The “Curry Chronicles” episode of the Gastropod podcast explains how curry is “a dish that’s from nowhere and yet eaten nearly everywhere.”
There are a few things curries from around the world have in common. They bring comfort to those who eat them and are often an expression of cultural or regional identity. The labors of love get layers of flavor from spice blends and often have enchanting aromas that linger in the air. Here’s where to warm up nine global curry preparations without leaving the D.C. area:
Hanabi Ramen’s Katsu Curry ($15.49)
3024 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 351-1275, hanabiramensusa.com
There’s a Japanese word for how this bowl of brown curry might make you feel when it arrives at your table with aromatic steam still swirling. “Natsukashii” is used to describe something that evokes warm, nostalgic feelings. “Curry is a comfort food for Japanese,” says owner Kenji Hisatsune. “Mothers always make curry for their kids.” Hisatsune, a Fukuoka, Japan, native, opened the Clarendon restaurant five years ago after a career running a computer game company.
He believes curry reached Japan during the Meiji era (1868 to 1912) by way of people arriving from England. There’s no searing heat in Japanese curries—they’re much more mild and taste of warming baking spices. Hisatsune serves his curry “restaurant style,” which means you won’t see large hunks of carrot, potato, and onion like you might find in a home. He purees them into the curry base, which smacks of ginger and garlic. While pork cutlet (katsu) is popular, you can customize how to top your bowl. Other options include chicken cutlet, fried shrimp, fried oysters, and tofu. Ask for house-made chili crunch if you want some fire. Hanabi Ramen is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays.
Pimento Grill’s Curry Goat Platter ($16.50)
4405 Bowen Rd. SE, (202) 582-6595, pimento-grill.com
You could look for the Jamaican food sign to find Pimento Grill, or you could just follow your nose toward smells of jerk seasoning, brown stew, and curry. The carry-out owned by Kori and Gary McNaughton has been open since 2008. A curry goat platter can easily stretch to two meals once you choose two sides. What’s memorable, besides the heady wafts of curry spices, is the golden hue of both the yellow rice and the curry goat. Kori is from Portmore, Jamaica, and urges diners to go for the goat. The meat is frequently eaten at celebrations. “It can be for a Sweet 16,” he says. “For a child, we’ll buy a farm-raised goat. It’s almost like a ritual.” Pimento Grill cooks the goat until the meat is so tender it falls off the bones, which are included in the dish. The carry-out near Fort Circle Park is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Daru’s Achari Pumpkin ($18)
1451 Maryland Ave. NE, (202) 388-1848, darudc.com
“Indian-ish” newcomer Daru has a knockout achari pumpkin curry. Chef Suresh Sundas uses kabocha squash, which (fight me!) has the best texture and flavor of all of the fall gourds. If you see “achari” in the title of a curry preparation, it signifies that the chef is using pickling spices and some variety of vinegar. For Sundas, red wine vinegar marries the pumpkin’s sweetness with zippy tartness. Mustard oil, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, and nigella seeds (kalonji) play the role of pickling spices.
What makes the taste of the curry linger is the house “pumpkin spice” blend that’s too good for any chain coffee shop: cinnamon stick, green cardamom, clove, coriander, cumin, and nutmeg. The noticeable heat in the dish comes from fresh Thai green chilies and chopped ginger. Sundas finishes the vibrant orange meal with shredded coconut and crunchy pumpkin seeds coated in sumac powder, Kashmiri chili, salt, and cumin. It comes with rice but also pair it with za’atar olive naan. Daru, located just off H Street NE, is open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays.
Baan Siam’s Mushroom Curry in Banana Leaf ($16)
425 I St. NW, (202) 588-5889, baansiamdc.com
Curries wrapped and steamed in banana leaves (hor mok) may be ubiquitous in Thailand, but at a corner restaurant in Mount Vernon Triangle, the fragrant little bundle wows. “Hor mok is wildly available in Thailand in every food market you go to—morning, noon, and night,” says partner and executive chef Jeeraporn “P’Boom” Poksupthong. While she’s from northern Thailand, the version she serves at Baam Siam that uses coconut milk, red curry paste, and egg is closer to a central Thailand preparation. Instead of seafood, Poksupthong subs in a medley of mushrooms to make the dish vegetarian. Kaffir lime leaves and basil counter the heat and brighten the dish. (You can watch how it’s made on the restaurant’s Instagram.) Baan Siam is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays.
Cane’s Curried Beef Lunch Bowl ($16.50)
403 H St. NE, (202) 675-2011, cane-dc.com
Cane chef and owner Peter Prime eagerly awaited family outings to roti shops when he was growing up in Trinidad. He raced his dad and whoever finished their food first got an extra flat bread to dip into curries. “Curry is a huge part of Trinidadian food,” Prime says. “Growing up, it was definitely done more by Indians and their descendants. It wasn’t made in a lot of homes of African descendants. My mom learned how to make it and started to make more as we got older.” One of the best ways to try the curries he makes at Cane on H Street NE is a filling lunch rice bowl. You can choose between beef or chicken. The beef gets its flavor from marinating in the restaurant’s house “green seasoning” for 24 hours and from Madras-style curry powder. The rice bowls are only available during lunch, which is offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Thip Khao’s Gaeng Phet with Duck Leg ($20)
3462 14th St. NW, (202) 387-5426, thipkhao.com
When a duck leg lands on your plate, it faces a test. The one that accompanies Thip Khao’s rich red coconut curry passes. No fork and knife is needed—the tender meat falls off the bone. That’s because the Lao restaurant cures the duck legs overnight before braising them in the red curry cooking liquid. Chef and co-owner Boby Pradachith explains that Lao curries are a little looser than Thai curries because they incorporate broth along with coconut milk. “Basing it on stock, you get more aromatic flavors from the curry,” he says. “Coconut milk isn’t taming it down.”
Thip Khao grinds ingredients to make the curry paste in house. The dish calls upon tart ingredients like whole pickled lime, lemongrass, and makrut lime leaves for tang. Dip down and your spoon will also find veggies like Thai eggplants, bell peppers, and snake beans. If you’re not a fan of duck, you can add tofu, chicken, fried catfish, or shrimp to the curry instead. Thip Khao is open for dinner Wednesdays through Sundays.
Makan’s Pajeri Nenas ($18)
3400 11th St. NW, (202) 730-2295, makanrestaurantdc.com
Pineapple might not belong on pizza, but it deserves its starring role in a vegan curry at Makan. Chef and owner James Wozniuk says you can find the sweet and spicy pineapple curry at nasi campur houses in Malaysia that specialize in mixed rice dishes. To arrive at the recipe his Columbia Heights restaurant uses, Wozniuk says he pulled ideas from several Malaysian cookbooks.
The base starts with a curry paste he makes from shallots, garlic, Holland chiles, and ginger. Then the blend of star anise, clove, and fried coconut paste (kalonji) goes in followed by the pineapple, coconut milk, fresh curry leaves, unrefined palm sugar (gula melaka), bundles of pandan leaves, and sate spice made from coriander, cumin, and fennel. “That’s how all the curry recipes are,” Wozniuk says. “You’re looking at 15 to 25 ingredients. It’s very labor intensive, but when you taste the final product it’s something special.” He tops the pile of pineapple pieces with crispy shallots. Pajeri nenas is only on the dinner menu. Dinner is served Tuesdays through Sundays.
Dishes have come and gone from Rasika’s menu since the Penn Quarter restaurant opened in 2005, but one simply can’t come off. A hearty bowl of chicken morsels swimming in green masala has long been a hit with everyone except the small set of people who can’t stand the taste of cilantro. The light but lingering heat comes from green chili and you can also taste green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and mint. Rasika drew inspiration from a Goan dish called chicken cafreal that’s often served at celebrations. It’s more of a dry marinade than a saucy gravy, however. Try the chicken green masala with the restaurant’s truffle naan—a $5 treat. It’s on both the lunch and dinner menus. Rasika is open for dinner every night and lunch Mondays through Fridays and Sundays.
Thamee’s Nga Hin ($19)
1320 H St. NE, (202) 750-6529, thamee.com
Thamee executive chef and co-owner chef Jocelyn Law-Yone serves a family recipe fish curry at her Burmese restaurant on H Street NE. The base is garlic, ginger, and onion but she explains that it’s common to customize your curry order like you would ordering eggs at an American diner. “Our word for curry is ‘hin’ and it doesn’t have to have Indian curry spices,” she says. “We call everything with a sauce hin. You say, ‘I want a nga hin,’ which is fish curry. Then they say, ‘How do you want it?’”
The mild bowl, served fast-casual style, always contains a fish filet and a medley of vegetables like eggplant, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. Seasons and supply chain shortages dictate the ingredients. The roasted tomato base doesn’t change. “I really like that charred flavor,” Law-Yone says. “It comes from living a life where everything is cooked on an open fire. It’s built into your home—a big cement pit.”
Even though Thamee’s shallot-topped golden rice is typically a must-order, the chef recommends pairing the fish curry with plain rice so none of the subtle flavors are lost. Thamee is open for dinner Wednesdays through Sundays.