by Kate Heyhoe
Exactly what is curry? Is it...
a) a ground nut that grows on evergreen trees
b) a blend of spices, or
c) a type of yellow peppercorn?
Before we give you the answer, let's talk about curried dishes in general. Curries may have originated in India, but trade ships brought them centuries ago to the shores of Southeast Asia. The peoples of present day Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and Laos embraced these spicy dishes and integrated them into their own culinary repertoire. You can taste variations on curried dishes throughout these lands, each culture putting its own stamp of indigenous foods into them.
So what is curry? If you answered "b) a blend of spices" you were correct. What we call "curry powder" is a premixed blend created as a result of the British colonial period in India. The word itself does not exist in the Indian languages. Both the British and the Indian expatriates who left their homeland for other parts of the British empire longed for the taste of Indian's spice blends but lacked the resources and time to create them from scratch. Hence, curry powder was born—essentially an early "convenience food," and typically contains cayenne, coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek, ginger, mace, and of course, turmeric, which gives it that bright yellow color.
In India there is no such thing as curry powder. What the Indians do make, and do so fresh on a daily basis, are spice blends known as masalas. Unlike curry powder, which tends to make all foods taste the same, these masalas vary their ingredients and because they are ground from whole seeds at the time of cooking, they perfume the dishes with much richer and deeper flavors.
Still, the convenience of commercial curry powder has worked its way firmly into Western recipes and may be added to everything from deviled eggs to chicken salads, soups, rice and vegetables.
Tip: Curry powder can have a raw taste; to prevent this, sauté it in a little butter or oil before adding it to a recipe. Also, be careful not to add too much. Curry powder's intense flavor goes a long way and can easily overpower a dish.
Here's a recipe using curry:
Visit India page
This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified January 2007
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