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Curry, Food For Thought

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Curry, food for thought
At home with ancient cuisine known in many continents

By Arthi Subramaniam, Boston Globe, 2/13/2002

What is curry? The word is misused, often distorted, as a catchall term for any hot or spicy dish of Indian origin.

Not all spicy dishes are curries, such as the vindaloos, kurmas, kootus, and do pyazs. There is no standard, predefined curry dish. Also, curry powder, the yellow spice mix found in supermarkets, is scoffed at by the cognoscenti. In the Indian subcontinent, freshly ground spices are the order of the day. With spice mixtures varying from dish to dish and from region to region, the blends cannot be represented in the form of a single curry powder, they say.

''The word `curry' is as degrading to India's great cuisine as the term `chop suey' was to China,'' says Madhur Jaffrey, the cookbook author, in ''An Invitation to Indian Cooking.''

''If curry is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine,'' Jaffrey says, ''curry powder attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself.''

The word, whose origins go to southern India, has travelled far and wide, turning up in Thailand, Ethiopia, and the Caribbean. The British are said to have appropriated curry from the Tamil word ''kari,'' which means a dry vegetable dish or a meat dish in a sauce, or from the curry leaf of the Murraya koenigii plant that is used to enhance the flavor of a dish.

Lore has it that the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who set up trade in southern India in the 15th century, changed the nature of the spice mix by introducing chili peppers, which had been brought to Europe from the New World. Southern masalas are more likely to contain chilies as an ingredient as a result.

Over the years, several variations of the dishes and spice mixtures have flowed from the give and take of ideas and tastes. Recipes may call for a long list of ingredients, but curry dishes don't have to be complicated, and the cooking is straightforward.

All you need is an open mind and an appetite for deep flavors.

First keep in mind that curry is versatile. It can be dry or accompanied with a sauce. It can be done with as few as four ingredients or as many as 15 to 20. It can be bland or spicy. It can be buttery and indulgent; it can be light and lean, with little oil.

Curry has also come to mean a blend of spices that has heat and fragrance. The word masala is used in India to convey the same meaning. The spice shelf of a cook who makes curry might hold seeds, pods, sticks, leaves, and powders that render sweet, sour, hot, and bitter tastes. But you don't need anything that exotic to make a good curry.

Recipes for the Indian spice mixtures, with variations on the proportions used, are passed down from generation to generation. The recipes differ from region to region. A southern blend known as sambhar powder comprises coriander and cumin seeds, black pepper, fenugreek, red chilies, and turmeric powder. A northern version of garam masala includes ground cumin, coriander, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg. Panch phoron, a classic blend from the east, contains fenugreek, fennel, cumin, black mustard, and nigella (kalonji) seeds. Dishes in the west tempered with goda (black) masala include a ground mixture of coriander, sesame, cumin, and caraway seeds, desiccated coconut, asafetida (a resin), cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, red chilies, and turmeric powder. Mixing and matching of spices from the different regions is acceptable as long as it is agreeable to the tastebuds.

A spice mixture can be ground either into a powder or a paste. The flavor is at its best when the spices are roasted dry before being ground. The shelf life of a powder is not more than six months, and outlasts that of a paste. A paste could include coconut, tamarind (a sour pulpy fruit), ginger, garlic, onions, and tomatoes.

I learned to make vegetable curry dishes from my mother. The carrot curry that follows is simple, and can be made quickly when unexpected guests show up. The chili can be left out if you want it mild. The potato-and-peas curry has a strong flavor and some heat. These dishes can be served with rice or breads such as parathas, pooris, and chappatis.

Potato and peas curry
Serves 5

1 1/2 pound potatoes
3 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon urad lentils (black gram)
1 medium onion, sliced thin
1/4 pound shelled peas
1 teaspoon coriander powder
2 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste

In a large pot, boil the potatoes to a semifirm texture, and drain. Let them cool a bit before cutting them into medium pieces.

In the same pot, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. Once the seeds splutter (about a minute or two), add lentils and sauté until golden brown. Add the onions and fry until they turn slightly brown. Add the potatoes and peas. Sprinkle in the chili, coriander, cumin, and turmeric powders, and salt and mix well. Cook for 15 minutes.

Carrot curry
Serves 4

3 teaspoons oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon urad lentils (black gram)
1 green chili, chopped
11/2 pound carrots, diced
Salt to taste
8 to 10 curry leaves
2 tablespoons grated coconut

In a deep skillet, heat the oil, add cumin seeds and lentils. After lentils turn brown, add the chopped chili. Sauté for a few minutes.

Add the diced carrots and 1/4 cup water. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the carrots are half-cooked, and add the salt. Stir. Cook the carrots until the water evaporates. Add the coconut and curry leaves, and cook for a few minutes before removing from the heat.

Butter chicken curry
Serves 6

1 large onion, diced
2 teaspoons oil
2 sticks cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger and garlic paste (sold in bottles), or 1/8 inch of ginger root and 3-4 cloves of garlic ground to a paste
1/4 teaspoons turmeric powder
2 teaspoons red chili powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
Salt to taste
2 tomatoes, blended to a purée
Handful of cashew nuts and almonds ground to a paste
1/2-1 cup water
2 pounds chicken, skinned and cut into small pieces
1/4 teaspoon saffron
3 teaspoons butter
Chopped cilantro

In a deep skillet, sauté diced onion in oil until it turns transparent. Add the cinnamon sticks and cloves and sauté for a few minutes. Add ginger and garlic paste along with 1/4 cup water. Stir continuously.

Add turmeric, chili and coriander powders, and salt and mix well.

Add the tomato purée and cashew and almond paste. Mix well with 1/2 cup water.

When it begins to boil, add the chicken pieces. Add enough water for the chicken to cook. After the sauce begins to thicken, add the saffron and butter. Let it simmer until the butter melts completely.

Put the chicken and sauce onto individual plates and garnish with cilantro if you wish. Serve with hot parathas (an East Indian bread) or rice. The cinnamon and cloves are not meant to eaten.

The Boston Globe
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
post #2 of 2
You know how you get cravings for certain foods and you just want to eat as much as you can get for about a week? I have been in a curry-mood for the last week and I can't get enough. Thanks for the insight, Isa.

"I Am Not Afraid... I Was Born To Do This." Joan of Arc

"I Am Not Afraid... I Was Born To Do This." Joan of Arc
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