I love playing with flavors, adding an Indian touch to almost anything that comes my way, minced chilies to my grilled cheese sandwich, a touch of ginger to the kids’ mac and cheese, and cilantro to almost everything that I set my eyes on. So the idea of a curry-flavored chicken sandwich sounded just right for lunch, and quite an exciting choice for a meal to be eaten on the go. I ventured to our local deli and picked up a nice-looking curried chicken sandwich, made on crisp well-toasted whole grain bread. The salad had the proverbial yellow color that seems to be the color of almost all things “curry” in commercial outlets. However, since it is most often derived from the addition of turmeric (a very healthy spice), it did not faze me when I bought my lunch.
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By Rinku Bhattacharya
But a few bites of the curried chicken sandwich convinced me that I was wrong about turmeric! I had misunderstood the intense taste of turmeric, overlooking the fact that this beautiful yellow powder tastes awful when uncooked. This unfortunate culinary experience also made me realize (not surprisingly!) that my mother was very right in her advice about never using spices without cooking them. Spices, as she always emphasizes, can be cooked and used in many different ways – they can be roasted, toasted, steamed or fried, but should never be used raw. A few ill-considered spices, with an emphasis on turmeric, does not quite make a dish curried. That had been my mistake with the chicken sandwich.
Looking at the bright yellow creation dotted with white almond chips and deep red cranberries, I could not help but observe that curry is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts about Indian cooking. Raw turmeric masquerading as curry has made me eloquent and thoughtful. But, seriously, I have probably heard it all when it comes to misconceptions: that curry is a single spice, or that it is essential to all Indian cooking. Leading the charge is probably the question about whether my cooking and cooking classes include a lot of curry.
What is curry?
So let me tackle a few of my favorite peeves in an attempt to give curry a sense of identity. At this point, I am really restricting this to Indian food and cuisine, as stretching this to a global context makes it an even broader exercise. Indians use the word curry in a multitude of ways, but most commonly it’s used in referring to a saucy spiced stew. So, a chicken curry would essentially mean a spiced chicken stew. However, something like the well-known chicken tikka masala would also be a curry, just a curry with its own specific spicing. But, of course, not everything on the Indian table is a curry. It really is a term used in lieu of sauce or gravy.
So, what is in the world is the spice or concept that we call curry? Well, here is the first often-confused perception: that curry is a single spice used in all Indian food. Curry, even as we think of it in mainstream parlance, is not a single spice but rather a blend of spices, possibly concocted to offer a quick-fix formula to Indian cuisine. The popularity of the blend and the curry concept can be largely credited to the British, who fell in love with the culinary flavors of India (in the 1800s during the colonial period of Indian history that extended over a hundred years) and wanted to bottle and synthesize them into a single concept. There is no standard preset formula to curry.
Most Indian homes have several spice blends that are essential to their cooking repertoire, and they may not be called curry. These blends vary from region to region and often chef to chef, possibly with most of them having cumin, coriander seeds, and turmeric and cayenne powders as some common ingredients. It is very uncommon to add these blends in their uncooked form to dishes, so really the curried chicken salad that started this line of thinking would not have a place in most typical Indian tables.
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Commercial curry blends seem to have affection for turmeric, since it yields the yellow color associated with curry powder, and fenugreek, whose characteristic mildly maple-like scent is associated with the supposed fragrance of curry. This brings us to the second misconception about curry: that it has a particular smell. There is no specific fragrance associated with a curry. Since a lot of the core spices are the same, we often call it the fragrance of “curry”; however, what is typical and easy to define is the scent of these individual spices, rather than the curry smell.
In various parts of India (most commonly in the South), the cooking and sauces use a fragrant leaf called the curry leaf. Aromatic, with gentle citrus-like notes, the curry leaf is used to add flavor and fragrance to stew, much like bay leaves. This brings us to the third misconception about curry: the belief that all curries have curry leaves. There are curries without these leaves and then dishes that use the curry leaf but are not called a curry. Curry leaves are added to some, but not all, curry blends.
Other spices in Indian cooking
This brings me to the last and final misconception (at least that I will discuss here): To like Indian food, you need to like curry. Well, that really gets us back to the first point. While there are spices in most Indian cooking, it is more complicated than just curry. By identifying the object of your dissatisfaction, chances are you will be just fine with some of the offerings on the Indian table, such as maybe a light stir-fry, sweet and tangy chutney or even a delightful grilled and smoky dish, marinated with light and balanced seasonings. All sans curry, and all very Indian!
Having said all of this, I do have my own all-purpose blend that I call curry powder (see, I told you this was confusing). It is a hybrid of flavors from my mother-in-law’s North India and my mother’s Bengali kitchen. It is one of the flavors in my kitchen and is one of the spice blends in my upcoming cookbook, “Spices and Seasons.” But I do not use it in everything.
Basic All Purpose Curry Powder
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
3 dried red chilies
10 to 15 curry leaves
1 teaspoon turmeric
1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, dry roast all the spices except the turmeric on medium heat for about 2 minutes. The spices should smell fragrant and toasty.
2. Mix in the turmeric and grind to a powder in a spice mill or coffee grinder.
3. Store in an airtight jar in a cool dry place.
Main photo: Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books