Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest
Curry powders hail from all over the globe, but their Asian and Indian incarnations are perhaps the most well known. The Western world began adopting curries in the 18th century, when the British brought recipes back from colonial India and created the first pre-ground, pre-blended curry powder, whose mustard-yellow hue is now instantly identifiable and widely available -- to make cooking curries more accessible to the home cook. (Traditional Indian cooking dictates layering flavors into curries, freshly grinding and adding spices individually as the sauce cooks.)
Today, we find ourselves rebelling a bit against the pre-mixed and pre-made, seeking to both understand the origins of recipes and, through acquired knowledge, create new recipes that reflect a balance of authenticity and personalization. Curry powder is one such canvas deserving of exploration and experimentation. And to understand curry powder, we must also understand what its classically meant to yield: curry.
A Small Sample of Curries Around the World
- The U.K. acquired its taste for curry while occupying colonial India in the 1800s and brought a taste for curry to the Western world.
- The British developed a pre-mixed curry powder to provide home cooks with an easy way to mimic the flavors of traditional Indian curries.
- British (now also thought of as American) curry powder usually contains eight primary spices: tumeric, chili powder, coriander, cumin, ginger, black pepper, cayenne, and mustard.
- Considered the birthplace of curry, Indian curries vary according to geography. There are probably as many curry variations within India as there are around the world.
- Typical ingredients in Indian curry powders include: anise, asafetida, bay leaves, cardamom, cassia (a cinnamon-like bark), cinnamon, chilies, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry leaf, fennel seeds, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, nutmeg, tamarind, turmeric, and saffron.
- Dishes range from spicy, creamy, herb-driven masalas to mild and mellow tandooris to burning-hot Madras, which are made sour by the acid from lemon juice and tomatoes.
- Indonesian curries, known as "kari" or "gulai" are also dependent on location. Mixed with a variety of seafood or meat, the most interesting of their curries include water buffalo or goat meat.
- Rendang is a popular curry variation in which meat simmers away slowly in coconut milk, allowing for a spicy-sweet combination.
- Some curries from Indonesia use peanut sauces to brighten the flavor.
- Popular curry ingredients include: bay leaves, chili peppers, coriander, cumin, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, tamarind, turmeric, and white pepper.
- Japanese curries are unique, in that they derive from the British curry rather than from their Asian neighbors.
- Curried rice is the most popular of the curry dishes in Japan, but noodles such as udon may be served in a curry sauce as well.
- A speciality called "kari-pan" is a deep-fried curry doughnut.
- The Japanese curry mixes can be made of: cardamom, coriander, cumin, galangal (a.k.a. blue ginger), garlic, ginger, green chilies, lemongrass, red chilies, and turmeric.
- Thai curries names are derived from the color of their primary ingredients: green curry (from green chilies and basil), red curry (from red chilies), and yellow curry (from tumeric) are common varieties.
- Many curries are popular for their spicy-sweet flavor, the sweetness coming from the addition of thick, rich coconut milk.
- Thai curries are often made of: black pepper, cardamom, coriander, cumin, curry tree leaves, green chilies, red chilies, and tamarind.
- The large continent of Africa has just as large an arsenal of curry variations. From north to south, the spices and mixtures change with the region.
- One common theme among African curries is that they are fiery and driven by chilies.
- Common spice mixtures include:
- Tunisian 5 Spice: cloves, black peppercorns, malagueta pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
- Ras el Hanout: black peppercorns, cardamom, mace, ginger, red chiles, fennel seed, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, malagueta pepper, galangal, cloves, tumeric, dried lavender, and dried rosebuds.
- Harissa: red chilies, garlic, cumin, caraway seeds, cinnamon, coriander and dried mint leaves.
- Jamaican curries range from very mild to insanely spicy, and the heat level is largely dependant on the chilies used.
- What sets them apart from other curries is the inclusion of allspice in the curry powder blend.
- Another distinguishing factor is the widespread use of seafood in curries, conch being a popular option.
DIY Curry Powder
Choosing Your Spice Blend
Typical curry powders include some combination of a few of the following: coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, red pepper, ginger, garlic, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, nutmeg, or black pepper. The large variety of spices might seem overwhelming, but it only serves to demonstrate how much flexibility there is in creating your own blend. Of course, the only way you can know what you like is to try different combinations. Here's a basic recipe to get you started:
Basic Curry Spice Blend
• 2 tablespoons ground cumin
• 2 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
• 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
• 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground dry mustard
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Mix all ingredients together; store in an airtight container. If time permits, purchase whole cumin, coriander, mustard and cardamom seeds; toast in a dry skillet over medium heat for about ten minutes, or until spices are fragrant and slightly darker. Cool completely, grind and add powdered spices. (Recipe from Whole Foods Market.)
Grinding the Spices
- Buy your spices whole and grind them yourself to preserve their vibrant flavors.
- Don’t grind your spices until right before you plan to use them; if you store them pre-ground they will lose some of their flavor.
- There are three basic ways to grind your spices:
- Mortar and pestle: This classic technique requires a heavy enough mortar and pestle to effectively work with whole spices. Depending on its size, you can grind several tablespoons of spices at a time. To keep your spices from flying out while you grind them, tap them with the pestle until they’ve broken up into medium-sized pieces, and then begin grinding them with a more fluid motion until they’re reduced to a powder.
- Coffee grinder or spice grinder: If you’re grinding lots of spices at once, or if you don’t have too much time on your hands, you can use an electric coffee grinder to quickly turn your whole spices into powders. Just put a few tablespoons of your whole spices into the grinder and grind like you would coffee. Make sure to clean your grinder out with a damp cloth before and after grinding spices to avoid transferring flavors. If you find yourself grinding spices fairly often, you can buy a spice grinder or a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices.
- Micrograter: For a very small quantity of a specific spice, you can use a micrograter. This technique only works well for large whole spices that are easy enough to hold without risking cutting yourself on the grater, such as nutmeg.
- For more detailed instructions and tips, check out Kitchen Basics: Spices, Part 1.
Storing your Custom Blend
- To get the most out of your custom blend, store the whole spices in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
- Make sure you replace your whole spices every two years or when they lose their aroma. Ground spices should be replaced every six to eight months.
Toast It! Getting the Most Flavor Out of Your Curry Powder
- Toasting your whole spices before you grind them will help bring out their aroma and flavor. Just toss them in a dry skillet over medium heat until they become fragrant, and then let cool and grind.
- You can also infuse oil with whole spices. For more on this and other ways to cook with spices, check out Kitchen Basics: Spices, Part 2.
Curry Powder vs. Curry Paste
Traditionally, curry powder flavors Indian curries and curry paste flavors Thai curries. You can’t substitute paste for powder or powder for paste without changing the flavor and texture of your dish because curry paste is moist from the inclusion of fresh ingredients (like fresh ginger or green chilies) in addition to dried spices.
But, if you're interested in experimenting, you can make any curry powder into a paste by adding 3 tablespoons of your curry powder to about 1/3 cup of white vinegar. It's not a substitute by any means, but it does allow for experimentation without much disruption to the intended texture of the curry.
Curry Powder or Garam Masala?
Garam Masala is another Indian spice blend that is centered around cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and peppers instead of cumin, tumeric, and coriander. It’s slightly sweeter and less spicy, in general, than curry powder. But like curry powder, the traditional Indian cook grinds the spices individually into their dish, so particular flavors vary. If you’re one who finds many curry powders too spicy, garam masala can be a milder, sweeter substitute (although it will slightly change the flavors of the dish).
Photos by Sarah Shatz (left) and James Ransom
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Have you made curry powder from scratch at home? How do you incorporate curry spice mixes into recipes? Share your cooking tips and techniques in the comments section below.
Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Flour Primer.