To most American cooks, curry is simply a spice known as “curry powder”. However, curry is a blend of many spices used to describe a variety of highly spiced dishes from Indian and South Asian cuisine. The word curry is a corruption of the Tamil word kari, meaning sauce and does not correspond to any specific Indian food.
The complex blend of spices used in making curry dishes usually includes coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and red pepper. Depending on whether the curry dish is hot, sweet, or sour, additional ingredients such as onion, ginger, garlic, tamarind, asafetida, fennel seed, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, mace, nutmeg and black pepper are added as well.
Curry has become a popular international cuisine, with each culture adapting the spice mixture to reflect its own indigenous taste and culture. India, Britain, Thailand and Japan each have their own distinctive style of curry flavors.
Curry powder, also known as masala, is a spice mixture developed by the British during the days of the Raj to approximate the taste of Indian cuisine. When the tradition of keeping special blends of curry powder became obsolete during the twentieth century, curry powder became standardized outside India. In the western world curry powders have a fairly standardized taste, though spice mixtures used in Indian cuisine have much more variety.
Most commercial curry powders available in the U.S. rely heavily on ground turmeric, which produces an extreme yellow color, whereas curry powders and pastes produced in India are much more diverse; some red, some yellow, some brown; some with as few as five spices and some with as many as twenty spices.
In India, most families have their own specialized spice blends that are used for different curry recipes. These blends are often passed down from parent to child.
Although there is a “curry tree” whose leaves are used in making some curries, its leaves are more like bay leaves and are primarily used in curries featuring fish or coconut milk.
One of the benefits of mixing your own curry as you cook, is that you can adjust the flavor of the dish to your own particular taste; for example if you want it sweeter – add more cinnamon, cloves or cardamom, want it hotter – add more cayenne pepper.
Most common curry dishes served in the West are characterized by a common base of a sautéd mixture of onion, garlic and fresh ginger, to which various spices are added, depending on the recipe, that may include cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, chilies, peppercorns, cumin and mustard seeds. Ground coriander is often used as a thickening agent, and turmeric is added for color. Fresh or canned tomatoes and bell peppers are also a common addition to curry sauces. The most common Indian curry varieties are:
Biryani – medium to hot, a rice dish served with curried vegetable or meat sauce.
Dopiaza – medium, characterized by the taste of onions, tomato sauce, with hints of cumin and mint.
Jalfrezi – medium to hot, a thick sauce made with onion, green chili and tomato.
Korma – mild, made with yoghurt, cream, nut and seed pastes and coconut milk.
Madras -– hot, red in color from then heavy use of chili powder
Pasanda – mild, made with cream, coconut milk, and almonds or cashews.
Pathia – hot, similar to a Madras with lemon juice and tomato purée
Phaal -– extremely hot, thick tomato based curry using ground chilies, ginger and fennel.
Roghan Josh – medium hot, a blend of turmeric, paprika and coriander with other spices with tomato puree, to create a tasty, rich and aromatic dish.
Sambar – medium, a sour curry made tamarind, usually a lentil base with additional vegetables.
Vindaloo – hot, this is generally regarded as the classic “hot” curry, usually made with lamb and potatoes.
Today, concentrated curry pastes like those listed above and many others are sold, jarred or canned in the average grocery store, making the preparation of complex and tasty Indian dishes quite simple to prepare. Look for them in the oriental food aisle or at specialty Asian market.
Look for PataksTM curry pastes in you local grocery or Asian market.
A wide variety of A Taste of Thai® products is sold at Amazon.com.
For a nice variety of curry powders visit Penzeys Spice House.
Denver Locations for Penzeys Spice House:
7511 Grandview Avenue, Arvada, CO (303) 424-2777
2500 West Main Street, Littleton, CO (303) 797-2777
1219 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO – Opening soon