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Curry Confusion: What It Means To Indian Cuisine

Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

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.

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.

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

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.

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.

Shrimp With Creamy Bell Pepper Sauce, a dish from Rinku Bhattacharya's "Spices and Seasons" cookbook, uses curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Rinku Bhattacharya

Shrimp With Creamy Bell Pepper Sauce, a dish from Rinku Bhattacharya’s “Spices and Seasons” cookbook, is just one of the many uses of curry powder. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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



Zester Daily contributor Rinku Bhattacharya is a teacher of Indian cooking and the author of "The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles" and "Spices and Seasons, Simple Sustainable Indian Flavors." She lives in Westchester, N.Y., with her husband and two children, and writes a blog about simple, sustainable cooking called Spice Chronicles. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

3 COMMENTS
  • [email protected] Road Gourmet 5·26·14

    Your personal mix is very interesting! Sort of like a panchforan with curry leaves and turmeric in it. I tackled the origins of curry powder and the word “curry” on some posts on my site last year.

    I also have some theories on where all that turmeric came from in commercial mixes. I think that it is possible that Anglos got confused about the correct form of turmeric to use. Specifically, I think that they used dried and powdered turmeric instead of fresh grated turmeric. That’s why so many modern mixes are drowning in turmeric. (My Dr. Kitchiner post discusses this in greater detail). I’d be interested to know what you think of this theory. Cheers!

  • Aida 5·27·14

    I LOVE your story! Being Indian myself, I try not to be a curry snob but sometimes I just can’t help it. 🙂 Well done, Rinku. I remember telling some people, who asked me about “curry”, that it is not a one-off spice like turmeric. And no, it is not considered “curry” just by adding turmeric to a dish.

  • Christine 5·27·14

    Your recipe seems very similar to a lightly roasted Sri Lankan Curry my company currently produces. It is a wonderful combination of ingredients and the flavor tones are magnificent. I have found that there are so many individuals that have no concept that Curry is a culinary blend so when they come to me asking for a Curry and it becomes a wonderful educational process. Along with that once they have tasted one of our curries, they do discover the freshness of the flavors since they are not over ran with turmeric.

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