Warming Up to Curry: Debunking the myths surrounding this Indian staple

Stews are a staple this time of year, offering hearty goodness, warm flavors and fragrant aromas to stave off the winter chill. An Indian curry fits the bill, but we’re not thinking along the lines of the ready-made yellow powder that many American home cooks keep in their spice armory.

“Curry is such a misused word,” said Hema Patel, owner of Haveli restaurant and Indian grocery store India Bazar, both in Maryland Heights. “A curry is like a gravy,” she summed. How has the Western notion of curry as a spice traveled a route that deviates from that held in the Indian subcontinent, and what are the steps to bringing this authentic Indian cuisine to the table?

From kari to curry
Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts defines curry as “any of several hot, spicy Indian meat and/or vegetable stewlike dishes; usually served with rice and side dishes such as chutney, nuts and coconut,” plus a second definition of “a general term used to imprecisely describe any of a wide variety of spicy, Asian stewlike dishes.” “Imprecisely describe”? It’s time to get precise.

We can thank the Brits in large part for the curry confusion, since it was British merchants smitten with salan, a spicy thin gravy dish with the familiar golden color, who termed the dish “curry” because it contained kari podi, a spice blend (sweet, aromatic kari leaves – we know them as curry leaves – being one ingredient in the blend) used to make kari dishes.

The Brits are, in fact, responsible for the advent of commercial curry powder, a blend that frequently contains yellow-inducing tumeric, red pepper, coriander, black pepper, cumin, fenugreek, curry leaves, mustard seeds, and sometimes cinnamon and cloves, all roasted and ground to a powder. As Indian cooking authority Julie Sahni writes in Classic Indian Cooking, early British merchants, eager to re-create in their homeland the same flavors that they experienced on the southeastern coast of India, “indiscriminately sprinkled kari podi over stews and casseroles” because they had not mastered different Indian cooking techniques or gained an understanding of spice blends.

Indian spice secrets
Most Indian cooks would agree that spices are the soul behind the curry-making craft. Different curries call for different spices, herbs and fresh seasonings, a combination referred to as a masala. A masala may be whole, powdered or wet, as in a paste. Masala compositions are regional in character, but are also based on family traditions or individual preferences. Garam masala, for example, is a dry spice mixture of northern India; a basic blend might include warm spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, cumin and coriander. The garam masala used at House of India in University City contains seven spices, while Jitendra Sandhe purchases one that contains more than 10 different spices for the dishes at his vegetarian restaurant Gokul Snacks and Sweets.

Another unique aspect to Indian cookery is the manner in which spices are added to dishes. Some may be added whole while others are first dry-roasted and ground before being added. In addition, spices are not necessarily added all at once, as might occur in an American kitchen when seasoning a stew or a pot of chili.

Since whole spices like seeds can be sharp and pungent when raw, Indians use an age-old technique of seasoning them in oil. This procedure, known as making a tarka, changes the character of the seeds and imparts the flavor of the spice into the oil. Whole mustard or cumin seeds become sweet, nutty, aromatic and more digestible after sizzling and popping in the hot oil. Multiple spices and seasonings such as fresh curry leaves can go into a tarka, and the spices are often added in a particular order, with those that burn easily, like dried chiles, being added last. The perfumed oil is then folded into the finished dish, although this process can occur at the outset of the cooking process before adding other ingredients.

Turning the heat dial
“The mixture of spices makes the food flavorful, not hot. Spices don’t make food hot,” contended House of India co-owner Satish Kumar regarding the notion that most curries are full of piquant heat. “The only thing that makes [curry] hot is red chile pepper or green chile pepper.”

Granted, a vindaloo, which Patel said is “usually the hottest thing on the menu” at Indian restaurants, is fiery hot. Be it chicken, lamb, fish or shrimp vindaloo, what characterizes this Portuguese-influenced dish is the use of vinegar and those heat-giving chiles. The ingredients in the sauce for Haveli’s lamb vindaloo include red vinegar, red chiles, cumin, coriander and garam masala.

But Indian dishes are varied in their heat. For those who want a tempered initiation to curry, Patel always suggests the navratan korma, a dish of mixed vegetables in a mild cream sauce sweetened from the likes of cashews, almonds and raisins. Kormas are mild, but not all kormas sway toward the sweet side – the popular savory vegetable korma that lands on the buffet every day at Gokul is built from two separate spiced gravies – a tomato gravy and an onion gravy – that are then combined with a medley of parboiled vegetables plus heavy cream (or coconut milk on vegan nights), and simmered some 20 minutes until the flavors have melded.

Hop aboard the gravy train
Although curry may denote “gravy” to an Indian, one major difference between a gravy as it is known in the Western world and an Indian-style curry is that a Western gravy is made separately and served on the side, whereas a curry is made by braising meat, fish or a vegetable in the sauce itself – in that way, curries are more like a Western stew.

“There are so many ways to make a gravy,” remarked House of India co-owner Neelam Khurana. The basic procedure involves stir-frying sliced or diced onion in hot oil or ghee (clarified butter) until it turns a golden brown, then adding minced garlic and ginger – or, better yet, mash them together to form a paste, which lessens the chance of burning them and results in a smoother sauce. Then come whole spices, followed by ground ones. Now add the protein, such as diced chicken. Once the meat is seared, you might add tomatoes for more flavor and moisture, then a cup or so of water. Once the liquid comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and let simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is fork-tender.

Is it done yet? That depends. Not only do curries offer a range of flavor profiles – bitter, sour, salty, sweet and pungent – they also vary in thickness. Unlike Western cooking, where flour is the go-to thickener for sauces and gravies, Indian cooks bulk up dishes and impart more flavor with components like yogurt, coconut milk, ground nuts or puréed lentils. More viscous curries include the ever-popular tikka masala, with cubes of rusty-red tandoori chicken wading in a silky, creamy tomato sauce, or rogan josh, the specialty of Kashmir that showcases braised lamb perfumed with garlic in a velvety yogurt sauce. Thin-bodied curries include sambar, a vegetable and lentil stew flavored with tart-tasting tamarind and other spices. This south Indian staple is typically paired with steamed rice cakes known as idli, found on menus as idli sambar. (Look for this dish at Gokul and at Mayuri India Restaurant in Creve Coeur.)

Finally, before digging into the saucy delight, Indian cooks seek to balance the taste. And not just via salt. What does that curry need? A splash of citrus or perhaps a dash of dry citrus from the likes of amchur powder? Spiced oil seasonings or a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, and we’d say you’re good to go.

Brothy or thick, hot or mild, creamy, fruity – what kind of curry piques your palate? If you’re not sure, why not begin the curry quest in the buffet line at local Indian restaurants, where a tasty tour of the Indian curry world awaits.

Navigating the menu
Local Indian restaurants offer a variety of curry dishes. Here are some of the curries that you are most likely to encounter:

Curry – A vegetable, meat or fish dish made with a rich, onion-based gravy and mild spices like cumin, coriander, tumeric, salt and pepper.

Vindaloo – This pungent, heat-laden curry is characterized by the presence of vinegar and chile peppers.

Korma – A mild, cream-based sauce that may be made sweeter from the addition of cashews, almonds and raisins.

Tikka masala – Meat or fish marinated in yogurt, herbs and spices then roasted in a tandoor, a clay oven, and simmered in a thick tomato-onion sauce. Chicken tikka masala is arguably the national dish of Britain.

Get It
Pick up spices and other curry essentials at one of these area Indian grocery stores:

Akshar Foods
12419 St. Charles Rock Road, Bridgeton, 314.291.6666

Harsha Indian Groceries
14033 Manchester Road, Ballwin, 636.527.5656

India Bazar
10755 Page Ave., Maryland Heights, 314.423.5900

Seema Enterprises
10635 Page Ave., Maryland Heights, 314.423.9990
14238 Manchester Road, Manchester, 636.391.5914