Curry blends many diverse spices, is not limited to one flavor

Most Americans wrongly consider curry an all-purpose Indian seasoning, usually containing some blend
This Fish Molee dish has its roots in Kerala on the southern coast of India and uses the regional staples of coconut, seafood and curry leaves.
This Fish Molee dish has its roots in Kerala on the southern coast of India and uses the regional staples of coconut, seafood and curry leaves.

If the only curry you’ve ever eaten began in a bottle, you’ve never had curry.

Most Americans wrongly consider curry an all-purpose Indian seasoning, usually containing some blend of turmeric, cumin, coriander, black pepper and other spices.

In fact, that sort of curry is a British invention, an attempt to replicate the complexity of Indian food.

“No self-respecting Indian has a curry spice blend in their kitchen,” says Raghavan Iyer, author of the forthcoming cookbook “660 Curries.”

If they did, all Indian food would taste the same, which, as the title of Iyer’s book indicates, it doesn’t.

To Indian chefs, curry simply means “sauce,” typically one with spices — sometimes many of them — liquid ingredients, thickeners such as nut pastes, and souring agents such as tomatoes or tamarind.

These sauces then are married with meat, vegetables and seafood. The combination of spices varies widely by dish and the region of India from which the dish originates. And generally, the spices are blended fresh for each meal.

India is a large, diverse country. Recipes change as dramatically by region as they do in Europe, depending on the local harvest, climate, season, religion, and whim of the cook.

“We are really magicians of spices,” says Madhur Jaffrey, author of many Indian cookbooks, including “Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick & Easy Indian Cooking.”

“We know the properties of each spice, and the way we blend them brings out different aspects of the spice,” she says.

Northern India serves up America’s more widely recognized “Indian food.” These dishes rely on ginger, garlic, cardamom, cinnamon, cilantro, mint, garam masala (itself a spice blend), yogurt and cream. They tend to have rich, creamy sauces with a complex blend of spices, sometimes more than 90 of them.

Southern and coastal communities, on the other hand, rely more on fresh ingredients, including curry leaves, coconut, fish and shellfish, and simpler spice blends.

But don’t let the complexity intimidate you. Many delicious curries are easy to create.

Curries can be made with almost any food. Vegetable curries are most popular throughout India, as are curries that use moderate amounts of meat, lamb, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, lentils and other legumes.

If you want to make curry, there are some essential ingredients you should have in your pantry. They are fresh ginger, garlic, onions, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, paprika, black pepper, red chili powder, fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mustard, fenugreek, bay leaves and garam masala.

To intensify the flavor of any spice, whole or ground, lightly toast it in a dry skillet over low heat before using or grinding. This also is a traditional first step in many curry recipes.

Start with ingredients you are familiar with, suggests Iyer. Try a basic chicken or potato curry.

Or experiment with Indian spice combinations in dishes more familiar to you. For example, add a sprinkle of garam masala to a traditional beef stew and see how it changes the flavor.

Black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, garlic, fresh ginger and turmeric are among the easiest spices to learn. With time and experimentation, many uses and combinations of the spices will become obvious.

“I tend to have some basic rules,” says Floyd Cardoz, chef and partner at New York’s fusion Indian restaurant Tabla, and author of “One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors.”

“If I’m cooking fish, I always use coriander seeds. Vegetables, always cumin seeds. Lamb and goat, cardamom,” he says. “With meat, I’d use coriander seed, cumin, black pepper and cardamom.”

The preparation of most curry dishes follow a general order, starting with the making of one or more pastes. For example, fresh ginger or garlic often is puréed with a little water.

Next, the oil is heated in a deep, heavy skillet or pot and the spices are added and are cooked until they sizzle and become aromatic. Once the spices are toasted, the onions usually are added and sautéed.

A bit of liquid, such as the pre-made ginger or garlic paste, water, broth or tomato sauce, are added, followed by the showcase ingredient (such as fish, meat or more vegetables). This combination then is simmered until cooked.

Before serving, sprinkle the dish with an aromatic spice, such as black pepper or garam masala, or a drizzle of ghee (clarified butter). Pour the curry over rice, noodles, eat as a soup or stew, or serve with Indian-style bread.

QUICK CHICKEN KORMA

When trying to cook fast, it helps to have all the prepared ingredients and the right tools on hand. Here, a blender to make the ginger-garlic paste and a skillet wide enough to hold all the chicken in a single layer will be of great help. This dish can be made a day ahead, covered and refrigerated. It reheats well.

Recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s “Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick & Easy Indian Cooking,” Chronicle Books, 2007.

1 piece (11⁄2 inches) fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

5 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons water, divided

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 bay leaves

1 stick (2 inches) cinnamon

8 cardamom pods

4 whole cloves

1⁄4 teaspoon whole black or regular cumin seeds

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 tablespoon ground coriander seed

1 tablespoon ground cumin

3 canned plum tomatoes, chopped

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken pieces, cut into small chunks

1⁄4 to 1 teaspoon cayenne

3⁄4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons heavy cream

In a blender, purée the ginger, garlic and 3 tablespoons water until they form a smooth paste.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over high. When the oil is very hot, add the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves and whole cumin seeds. Stir, then add the onion. Saute 3 minutes, or until the onion browns.

Transfer the paste from the blender to the skillet. Add the ground coriander and ground cumin, then sauté for a minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and sauté another minute.

Add the chicken, cayenne, salt and remaining 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil.

Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 15 minutes, occasionally turning the chicken pieces.

Remove the cover, add the cream, and cook on high, stirring occasionally, another 7 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Use a slotted spoon to remove and discard the cardamom pods, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and cloves. Serve over rice.

Serves 4.

Total preparation time: 45 minutes.

GARAM MASALA

The spice blend garam masala often is added to Indian curries just before serving. It is enjoyed for its warming, sweet and aromatic properties. It is readily available at most grocers, but homemade is easy and much better. Each region has its own version, but this basic masala from Camellia Panjabi, author of “50 Great Curries of India,” will work in most recipes.

1 whole cardamom pod

1 dried bay leaf

21⁄2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3⁄4 teaspoon fennel powder

In a clean coffee mill or mortar and pestle, grind together the cardamom and bay leaf until finely ground. Add the cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and fennel powder.

Makes 2 tablespoons.

Total preparation time: 5 minutes.

FISH MOLEE

This simple dish from Kerala on the southern coast of India features the regional staples of coconut, seafood and fresh curry leaves. Curry leaves resemble bay leaves and can be found at Indian food markets. If they’re not available, use a handful of fresh cilantro leaves. The flavor is not the same, but the herbal freshness is similar.

Recipe from Cheryl and Bill Jamison’s “Around the World in 80 Dinners,” William Morrow, 2008.

1⁄4 cup coconut oil

2 teaspoons black mustard seeds

11⁄2 cup chopped red onion

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 or 2 serrano chilies, split lengthwise and seeds removed (leave in some seeds for a spicier sauce)

1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup diced tomato

11⁄2 to 13⁄4 pounds cod or haddock fillets, cut into 2-inch chunks

1 cup coconut milk

1⁄2 cup fish stock, clam juice or water

10 to 12 fresh curry leaves (or a handful of fresh cilantro leaves)

6 lime wedges

In a large, deep skillet, warm the coconut oil over medium heat. When the oil is fragrant, stir in the mustard seeds.

When the mustard seeds begin to crackle and pop, stir in the onion. Once the onion has become limp, after about 2 minutes, stir in the garlic, ginger, chilies, turmeric, salt, pepper and half of the diced tomato.

Sauté, stirring frequently, until the tomato has softened and begun to break down, about 5 minutes.

Push the onion mixture to the side of the skillet and add the fish in a single layer. With a spatula, scrape up enough of the onion mixture to smear over the tops of the pieces of fish.

Pour the coconut milk and fish stock or water around and over the fish. Scatter the curry leaves or cilantro over everything. Cover and simmer 3 minutes.

Uncover and give the skillet a swirl, rather than stirring the mixture, which could break up the fish. Cook a few minutes more, uncovered, if needed to cook the fish through. The sauce will be fairly thin.

Spoon into shallow bowls, garnish with the remaining tomato and lime wedges, and serve.

Serves 6.

Total preparation time: 30 minutes.

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