Before moving to Washington, I had never been a big curry fan. The only curry I knew of was Indian curry. It tends to be very heavy on the turmeric, and a deep yellow color that I don’t find appetizing. I’ll eat it occasionally, but it’s never been my favorite. My relationship with curry changed altogether when I discovered Thai curry, a completely different set of flavors and colors. Thai restaurants are everywhere here, and each I’ve tried has served up a similar take on curry. Spices, usually red or green, are mixed with coconut milk and served as a liquid concoction somewhere between a soup and a stew, shot through with big chunks of broccoli, carrots, zucchini, bamboo shoots, and Thai basil.
The other day, when the term “curry favor” went through my mind, I wondered whether that phrase was related to the food term. Turns out, the answer is no. Not even close. The food word comes from the Tamil kari, meaning sauce. The British picked it up in their Asian travels and brought it into the language around the end of the 16th century. Same scenario, by the way, with “ketchup,” which came to us around the beginning of the 18th century from the Malay kechap, originally meaning a fish sauce. One begins to think that the Brits cooked up imperialism just so their food would eventually have some flavor.
In any case. “Curry favor” has an interesting beginning in the 14th century, in a French romance. In the story there was a chestnut horse named Fauvel or Favel who became a symbol of cunning and duplicity. In this context, “curry,” meaning to groom a horse, came into Middle English from Old French correier, which itself had a Germanic origin. (All info from OED.) To curry Favel meant figuratively to rub down this horse of cunning, and that led to the current meaning of the idiom, “to ingratiate oneself with someone through obsequious behavior.” You young people might know it as sucking up.
And that’s how I discovered that curry flavor was not the same as curry favor.