A Taste of India

Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish,
Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish,
Are fit to make a CURRY. ‘Tis, when done,
A dish for Emperors to feed upon.
– William Makepeace Thackeray, Kitchen Melodies – a Poem to Curry, 1846

The art of curry making originated in India, perhaps as early as 4000 B.C. And while it has spread throughout South-East Asia and from there around the globe, the Indian blends remain by far the most varied and inventive. Like the best wines, curry blends have a distinctive bouquet and flavour that is complex and widely different – subtle or strong, hot or diversely savoury – and there are as many different curry combinations as there are fine wines.

Originating from the Hindustani word, turcarri, our Anglo-Saxon translation (curry) refers to both the spice mixture itself and a style of cooking using curry spices. Indeed, there are some gastronomic writers and cooks who claim that the true Indian curry has been stolen, exploited and ruined by the English. “Curry in its twentieth century manifestation – a meat or occasionally vegetable stew flavoured with commercial curry powder – is essentially a British dish,” expounds John Ayto, author of The Glutton’s Glossary. Madhur Jaffrey takes this reasoning further in her book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, where she writes, “To me the word curry is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term chop suey was to China’s. If curry is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then curry powder attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself.”

Notwithstanding the fact that many spice blends were given the designation curry and many a stout British cook added commercial curry powder to otherwise English dishes, the fact remains that an artfully crafted blend of fresh spices and chili peppers is a very good basis for a fine dish – whether we choose to call it a curry or not.

The first fact of fine curry blends is this: there is no one curry spice that can be grown in the same way as a plant such as tumeric or ginger (both spices sometimes included in a curry). Curry is a mixture made from dozens of herbs, spices, fruits, rhizomes, bulbs, bark and roots. A good curry is balanced, with each of the spices, herbs and other ingredients supporting the others. Chile peppers, while a primary ingredient of curry blends, increase the heat but they should not overpower the spices in the overall flavour combinations. Most importantly, curry offers a welcome flavour boost to vegetarian and vegan fare.

CURRY POWDERS

Fine curry blends rely on fresh ingredients that are available in supermarkets, spice sellers and health food stores in the city. The blends below are authentic, meaning reliable and genuine. Use them as a basis for making your own curry blends.

CURRY PASTES

For their curry powders and pastes, Indian, Thai and other Southeast Asian cooks toast whole spices one by one and then grind them, adding other ground spices, fresh herbs and piquant fresh ingredients. I have shortened the preparation time by toasting all of the seeds together. This means that extra careful watching is required so that the smaller, lighter seeds do not burn and smoke; the pan may be removed before all the seeds have reached their maximum aroma, but that is the trade-off for shortening the time. Ghee (clarified butter) is the widely used carrier for the ground spice essences in spice pastes but I have substituted grapeseed oil in the following curry paste recipes. Any lighter oil (not olive oil) such as organic canola oil will work. I prefer to add salt to the pastes because it is more convenient. However, the salt may be removed from the curry paste recipes, if desired. Each of the paste recipes makes about 1/2 cup, enough for 4 to 8 dishes. While the curry paste recipes may be doubled, it is best to make small, fresh batches rather than store them for more than a few weeks.

The curry pastes here are not intensely hot in my opinion, but in order to judge for yourself, start with 1 tablespoon in recipes and add more as the heat is experienced in the actual dishes. If required, more curry may be added at the end of the cooking.

Pat Crocker is a Culinary Herbalist, photographer, writer, and lecturer. Author of several award-winning books, including her latest, The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, Pat has included a section on cooking with curry in her soon-to-be-released, The Vegan Cook’s Bible. Her other books including The Healing Herbs Cookbook, The Juicing Bible and The Smoothies Bible, are available at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States. Write or e-mail Pat at 536 Mill Street, Neustadt, ON, N0G 2M0, pcrocker@riversongherbals.com. Visit http://www.riversongherbals.com

Red Curry Spice

This curry spice is rich and complex, with an overall tinge of red. Use it when a slightly hotter boost is called for.

(Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients

  • 1 dried cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tbsp whole yellow or brown mustard seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole red peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp whole allspice berries
  • 1 Tbsp whole fennel seeds
  • 2 Tbsp ground paprika
  • 1 Tbsp ground turmeric

1) Using scissors, cut cayenne pepper pod into small pieces. In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine pepper pieces with mustard, peppercorns, allspice and fennel. Toast over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released. Let cool.

2) Using a mortar and pestle or a small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until coarse or finely ground. Add paprika and turmeric to ground spices and mix well.

3) Transfer mixture to a small clean jar with lid. Label and store in the refrigerator or cool dark place for up to two months.

Yellow Curry Spice

Pungent and gingery with citrus notes, turmeric is one of two key curry spices. Fenugreek seeds are the overriding smell of most curry powders. Both lend their distinct flavours and colour to this somewhat milder curry blend.

(Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients

  • 1 dried cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tbsp whole yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp whole allspice berries
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 Tbsp ground turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger powder

1) Using scissors, cut cayenne pepper pod into small pieces. In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine pepper pieces with mustard, coriander, cumin, allspice and fenugreek. Toast over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released. Let cool.

2) Using a mortar and pestle or a small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until coarse or finely ground. Add turmeric and ginger to ground spices and mix well.

3) Transfer mixture to a small clean jar with lid. Label and store in the refrigerator or cool dark place for up to 2 months.

Garam Masala Spice Blend

Masala is the Indian word for a blend of spices. A masala may be hot or sweetly fragrant, ground fine or crushed. It is added at different stages of the cooking process. Garam masala is the most common ground spice blend and is usually added towards the end of the cooking time. This masala is aromatic but not very hot and can be used in small amounts in sweet dishes and beverages.

(Makes 1/4 cup)

Ingredients

  • 1 piece (2 inches/5 cm) cinnamon
  • 2 Tbsp whole cardamom pods
  • 2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1) Break cinnamon into small pieces and separate cardamom seeds from their papery pods. Discard pods. In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine cinnamon and cardamom seeds with coriander, cumin, peppercorns, cloves and star anise. Toast over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released. Let cool.

2) In a mortar (using pestle) or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until coarse or finely ground. Add nutmeg to ground spices and mix well.

Madras Curry Paste

Even with the peppercorns and chile peppers, this curry is not over-the-top hot. The mixture is more crumbly than the other pastes but adding more oil would only serve to dilute the blend. Use it in combination with Garam Masala Spice Blend (see above) for an even richer effect in hearty rice, legume and root vegetable dishes.

(Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole yellow or brown mustard seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 2 dried chile peppers
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp grated fresh gingerroot
  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 to 2 tsp cider vinegar

1) In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine coriander, mustard, cumin, peppercorns and chile peppers. Toast over medium-high heat until seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released, 2 to 3 minutes. Let cool.

2) Using a mortar and pestle or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until finely ground. Add garlic, salt and ginger and grind into spices. Add grapeseed oil, a few drops at a time, and grind together with spices. Add cider vinegar in drops until a thick paste-like consistency is achieved.

3) Label and store paste in a small clean jar with lid in the refrigerator for up to one month. If the paste becomes too dry, add a few more drops of oil and/or cider vinegar.

Green Curry Paste

Offering a hot and fresh curry taste with citrus overtones, this blend is very good with lentils and in vegetable curry dishes.

(Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp whole fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 or 2 fresh jalapeño or Serrano chile peppers, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leaf Italian parsley
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh lemongrass herb
  • 1 Tbsp chopped galangal or grated fresh ginger root
  • 1 tsp grated lime zest
  • 1 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice, optional

1) In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine coriander, fennel, cumin and fenugreek seeds. Toast over medium-high heat until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released, 2 to 3 minutes. Let cool.

2) Using a mortar and pestle or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until finely ground. Add salt, chile pepper and cilantro and grind into spices. Add green onions and garlic and grind into spices. Add lemongrass, galangal and lime zest and grind into spices. The mixture should have a paste-like consistency at this point, but a few drops of lime juice may be added, if desired.

3) Label and store paste in a small clean jar with lid in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Yellow Curry Paste

This is subtle and rich without the hot and spicy bite of many curries. I use 2 Tbsp in stews, but less in soups that only serve four people.

(Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 2 Tbsp whole fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 Tbsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh lemongrass herb
  • 1 piece (1-inch) fresh ginger root
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest
  • 1 Tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 to 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1) In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine coriander, fenugreek and cumin seeds. Toast over medium-high heat until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released, 2 to 3 minutes. Let cool.

2) Using a mortar and pestle or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until finely ground. Add turmeric, salt, garlic and lemongrass and grind into spices. Add ginger and lemon zest and grind into spices. Add grapeseed oil, a few drops at a time, and grind together with spices. Add lemon juice in drops until a thick paste-like consistency is achieved.

3) Label and store paste in a small clean jar with lid in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. If the paste becomes too dry, add a few more drops of oil and/or lemon juice.

Red Rice and Lentil Curry

Use this fragrant rice mixture as a filling for wraps and to stuff roasted vegetables. It makes a very good accompaniment for greens and side dishes.

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 or 2 Tbsp Yellow Curry Paste or curry powder
  • 1 cup red rice or brown rice
  • 3-1/4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 cup cooked red kidney beans, drained and rinsed, optional

1) In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 6 to 8 minutes or until tender. Add curry paste, to taste, and stir until well mixed. Add red rice and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add water. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Stir in lentils and salt. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 40 minutes until rice and lentils are tender and liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork and stir in red beans, if using.

Curry Sauce

Use this sauce with cooked vegetables, fish or meat. It is best if made a day ahead so that the flavour blends together.

(Makes 3 cups)

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 apple, chopped
  • 1/4 cup yellow curry spice (see above)
  • 1/4 cup unbleached flour
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2/3 cup coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup chopped white raisins
  • 1 Tbsp grated coconut

1) In a saucepan, heat grapeseed oil over medium heat. Add onion, cook, stirring occasionally for 7 minutes. Add apple and cook, stirring frequently for 2 minutes. Add curry powder and flour and stir until a thick paste is formed.

2) Using a wire whisk, add stock and bring it to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes and reduce heat to medium-low. Add lemon juice, coconut milk, raisins and coconut. Simmer for 45 minutes.

3) Transfer to a bowl and let cool. Cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.

Red Curry Cauliflower

The coconut milk lends a tropical flavor to this faintly sweet-spicy dish. It is a fast and easy main dish that goes well with other vegetables, rice or rice noodles.

(Serves 4 to 6)

Ingredients

  • 1 small head cauliflower
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup shredded squash or sweet or pie pumpkin
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can (14 oz/400 mL) coconut milk
  • 2 Tbsp Red Curry Spice (see above)
  • 1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1) Trim cauliflower and cut florets in half. Set aside.

2) In a wok, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and stir-fry for 4 minutes or until golden. Stir in cauliflower and stir-fry for 4 minutes. Stir in red pepper, fennel, squash and garlic and stir-fry for 4 minutes.

3) Add coconut milk. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Stir in curry spice and hot pepper flakes and cook another 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.


References

SOURCES AND RESOURCES:

Spice Sellers:

  • The House of Spice – 190 Augusta Avenue, Toronto; 416-593-9724
  • The Spice Trader – 805 Queen Street W, Toronto; 647-430-7085
  • Spice of India – 262 King Street East, Kitchener; 519-576-2822

Books:

  • Crocker, Pat. The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible. Toronto, ON: Robert Rose Publisher, 2007. Some recipes are adapted, with permission from this book.
  • Jaffrey, Madhur. Madhur Jaffrey’s Spice Kitchen. New YorkCarol Southern Books, 1993.
  • Koul, Sudha. Curries Without Worries. Pennington, NJ: Cashmir Inc., 1993.
  • McDermott, Nancie. The Curry Book. Shelburne VT: Chapters Publishing Ltd., 1997.
  • Norman, Jill. Herbs & Spices. New York, NY: DK Publishing, 2002.

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