Curry In A Hurry
What Is Curry?
What exactly is curry? Where did the word originate, and what does it describe? The origins of the word curry are debated. Some people say that it was derived from a Tamil word, kari, meaning spiced sauce. If this is the case, any sort of food cooked in or served with a gravy could be considered a curry.
Other people have asserted that curry could be derived from the Hindi word for a wok-shaped cooking vessel, kara, which incidentally are what many curries are cooked in. One of the more interesting hypotheses is that the word is actually derived from the Old English word for "cooking," cury. Many of the more exotic Indian spices had found their way into better English kitchens by the 14th century, and foods cooked in spiced gravies were familiar to the English. As a matter of fact, when English merchants began landing in India in the mid 1600's, they were served a spiced chicken stew which was strikingly similar to a chicken pie recipe in a Indian spices in stews were already familiar to the merchants.
Regardless of the origin of the word curry, which nobody seems to be able to agree upon, the word describes any dish of meat, fish and/or vegetables that is served in or with a sauce. So, if you think you don't like curry, you are really limiting yourself. There are literally thousands of different curry blends that range from sweet and mild to hot and spicy.
How Curry Is Prepared
Most traditional Indian cooks make their curry seasoning from toasted whole spices that they grind themselves. There are probably as many curry seasoning blends as there are cooks who make curry, and most of them contain anywhere from 5 or 6 to as many as 30 different herbs and spices. As a convenience, curry powder blends are sold in most grocery stores. Some curry powders are hot and spicy, and some are much milder. If you don't fancy grinding your own spices, try several different brands of curry powder until you find one that you like.
What About Curry Leaves?
Curry leaves come from the curry tree, and they are used in many Indian dishes, much like bay leaves are used in Italian cooking. Curry leaves taste slightly bitter and a bit like citrus, but their flavor is short-lived. Dried curry leaves have very little flavor, so very rarely will you find them listed as an ingredient in commercially produced curry powders. If you can find fresh, bright green curry leaves, you can add them to a curry whole or chopped, or they can be ground into a spice mix that you will use immediately.
Many commercially produced curry powders are somewhat yellow, to one degree or another. This is due to the use of turmeric in the blends. The more turmeric, the more yellow the curry. By itself, turmeric is used not only for its earthy and slightly bitter flavor but also for its brilliant yellow color (in small amounts, it is even substituted for saffron"”for the color more than the flavor). Because of its vibrant hue, turmeric is often used as a coloring agent in other food products, ranging from yogurt to popcorn seasoning to cookies.
What About Garam Masala?
What further confuses the curry issue is another spice blend known as garam masala. Literally translated as "hot spice mixture," garam masala also comes in many forms and is often unique to each individual cook. To cut through some of the confusion, a curry blend and a garam masala blend can both be added to a curry.
As you can imagine, Indian cooking can seem daunting, especially when faced with a long list of exotic spices needed for making both a curry seasoning and a garam masala. It is for this reason that prepackaged blends have come into favor, although true purists will tell you that you will get the best, most aromatic blends by making your own.
Making Your Own
If you are interested in making your own curry powder or garam masala, here are a couple of recipes. Keep in mind that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of different recipes for these spice blends, so feel free to experiment.
The traditional procedure for making a curry powder or garam masala is always the same. Put all the whole spices except in a dry skillet over medium low heat. Cook the spices for several minutes, stirring constantly, until the spices have darkened a shade or two and are very fragrant. Don't turn up the heat; this must be done slowly, to toast the spices all the way through without burning the outsides.
Pour the spices on a paper towel to cool.
Once cooled, grind all the spices together in a mortar and pestle. Stir in any ground or granulated spices after grinding. Use immediately or cover tightly and keep in a cool, dark place for 3-6 months. Of course, grinding spices by hand using a mortar and pestle is time consuming, and you might not end up with as fine a grind as you might like. Fortunately, you can get very good results using a spice grinder or a bladed (not burr) coffee grinder. If you are a true purist, by all means use a mortar and pestle, but if you want all of the flavor with less fuss, it is perfectly fine to use an electric grinder.
If you come across a recipe for a spice blend that calls for all ground spices, you can still bring some depth to the flavor by toasting in a dry skillet for 2-3 minutes, just be very careful since ground spices will burn quickly.
Madras Curry Powder (Fairly Hot)
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 3 small dried hot chilies
- 2 teaspoons cumin seed
- 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 3 whole cloves
- 1 1" piece cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon granulated garlic
Mild Curry Powder
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 1 (3-inch) stick cinnamon, broken up
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Garam Masala 2
- 1-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup cumin seeds
- 1/3 cup coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon green cardamom pods
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons whole cloves
- 1 dried red chile
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground mace
Homemade curry blends and garam masala made with whole spices will almost always be more flavorful than a purchased product. This is because ground spices lose their flavor much more rapidly than whole, and you have no control over how long a powder has sat on a store shelf.
If you want to purchase your curry powder and garam masala, I suggest you try to find a brand that is sold in dark jars or, better yet, metal tins, as exposure to light can rapidly degrade the essential oils in the spices. If you are lucky enough to have an Asian, Indian or Pakistani grocery in your area, buy your curry powders and spice blends there, as there will be a higher turnover rate and the spices are likely to be fresher than at your local "regular" grocery store.