Curry is a general categorization of a type of spicy dish popular all around the world. But when asked to explain what curry is to someone who has never had it, it's surprisingly difficult. Is it a paste, soupy mixture, spice, or powder? Let's see if we can clear it up a bit.
Curry leaves In the past, the principal herb that seasons curry dishes is the leaf of a curry tree. (There is a different plant called the curry plant which should not be confused with the curry tree from which curry leaves are gathered.) The leaves can be used fresh (although, they don't keep very long), dried (which has a weaker aroma and flavor than fresh), and dried and ground up into a powder. Although the name "curry" comes from curry leaves, many (if not most) curries (the dishes) today do not actually contain curry leaves as a herb.
There are a variety of different curries depending on what region of the world you're in. In fact, there are more forms of curry than I can possibly imagine. I'll try to discuss a few of the types and let others provide their own comments on specific curry variations.
Indian curries There are probably as many Indian curries as there are Indian villages. The exact mix of spices changes from household to household but almost always starts with the toasting of spices in a pan. Practically any dish that begins with toasted spices can be considered a curry. Traditionally, a common herb used is the curry leaf (which lends its name to the entire classification of prepared foods) but turmeric (providing the familiar yellow), coriander, ginger, garlic, chili, black pepper, and tamarind are just as common to be found in the mix. In fact, so many spices (sometimes more than twenty!) go into the prepared curry that it can be daunting to chef's new to Indian cuisine. Perhaps this is the reason why the British began to prepackage spice mixtures as "curry powder".
Indian curries are typically named after the main ingredient (excluding the spices). For example, potato curries and chicken curries are quite common. In addition, depending on the region, the curry can be a fairly dry dish (like a stir fry), a heavily sauced dish, or everything in between. Some regions utilize coconut while others emphasize ghee (a clarified butter) or dairy cream.
Thai curries Thai curries usually don't have any curry (the leaves) in them. The cuisine has developed to use ingredients regional to Thailand and is typically identified by color.
Red curry - a name given to dishes made with red curry paste. Red curry paste is generally formed with red chilies, garlic, lemon grass, shallots, and galangal (Thai ginger) blended with other spices to form a paste.
Green curry - a name given to dishes made with green curry paste. Green curry paste is usually made in much the same way as red curry, but with green chilies instead. Green curries also tend to have the addition of cumin and coriander.
Yellow curry - a name given to dishes made with yellow curry paste. Yellow curry paste is similar to green curry paste, but with the addition of turmeric giving it the distinctive yellow color. Of all Thai curries, this is the type of curry most like Indian curry.
Thai curry dishes are usually prepared with meat (for example: beef, pork, duck, fish) and coconut milk.
Japanese curries Curry is a popular dish in Japan. It is generally served as a thick, gravy-like sauce over rice (and, commonly, a fried pork cutlet is also provided). The sauce is often a dark brown color and often contains potatoes, carrots, and onions. Japanese curry is generally not considered a Japanese dish by the Japanese - instead it is usually classified as a Western food. (It is often more similar to British curries than traditional Indian curries.)
British curries Although Britain's curries are derived from Indian curries, unless you are dining at a British restaurant specifically intending to provide authentic Indian cuisine, you'll discover dishes very different from their Indian counterparts. In fact, many of the dishes even have names that are the same or similar to Indian dishes - but often the similarity ends there. In general, the curry sauce is of a gravy consistency and have a variety of spices (including turmeric) blended with onion, garlic, and ginger. Most British curries do not contain curry leaves. One notable type of British curry is the Madras curry which uses a relatively large quantity of chili powder. Because of this, some places will use the term Madras to denote a spicier curry.
Curry Powder So, if curries vary so much (and are essentially dishes prepared with a wide variety of spices), then what's in curry powder? Well that depends. In general, curry powder purchased in most Western stores which is simply labeled "curry powder" is British curry powder. The yellow color is from ground turmeric and often ground coriander seed is added as both a flavorant and a thickener. The rest of the curry powder is a mixture of finely ground spices which can include chilies, cloves, cumin, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, mustard, fennel seeds, cardamom, and practically any other spice that suits ones fancy. Variations of this powder are used as a base for many forms of curry including not just British but also Japanese, Chinese, and other curries. Indian curry powder can contain over twenty spices and is often made daily and combined with ghee into a paste.
There are so many different curries out there that there's bound to be one you'll find enjoyable. From spicy to mild, coconut milk to ghee, every region has it's own distinctive taste and style. Let's go try a curry you've never had before.
Posted: Sun Aug 27, 2006 2:32 pm Post subject: British curries
Good article. Another aspect of British curries, especially those served in restaurants, is that they can have large amounts of food colourings added. The Tikka Masala from my favourite restaurant has a very bright crimson red sauce for example. From the way it stains a napkin, I really do wonder what it does to my insides!
Posted: Sun Aug 27, 2006 7:10 pm Post subject: Indian curries
I was taught Indian cooking by an Indian in the UK. Here's a few things I was told...
The term curry comes from the cooking pan used (a karahi) which is somewhat like a wok. It's a common utensil in Indian households and used for many one-pot meal styles (Balti etc.) often being placed on the table as a communal serving dish.
Turmeric is, as you say, basically a coloring - I was told it is used as a cheap alternative to saffron although that is added later.
Toasting spices was something I learned however most dishes started with frying spices in a small amount of hot oil.
You did a good job summarizing Indian cusine - it varies enormously across the sub-continent. Before travelling to India I was most familiar with more "refined" Moghul cooking - creamy sauces, yoghurt, tandoori, meat, naan. I now find Southern cuisine more to my taste - dry sauces, sambhar, vegetables, dosa. This is probably because that's where all my Indian friends drag me when we go to eat!
There are some excellent South Indian restaurants in the SF area btw.
Posted: Mon Aug 28, 2006 9:28 pm Post subject: Curry base
My understanding of curries is, aside from all what you have included in this article, that the usual base for curry is: gratuitous amount of oil, diced/chopped/miced onion, and garlic. To this admixture one adds any of the typical spices they prefer. I did not know at all about the "curry" leaf, kudos.
Posted: Mon Sep 04, 2006 6:05 pm Post subject: Simple Recipe For Curry
If you want to curry any vegetable,meat etc.. heat generous amount of oil,add onions,fresh ginger and garlic,fry till they are golden brown,then add the vegetables etc.. ,cook and then add salt and spices to suit your palette.
It's simple to make and delicious too.It is easy to get overwhelmed by the great varieties of curry dishes but adding only the spices you like and not going overboard is the key to a great curry experience.
I've used the leaves before-- they have a mild flavor, and they're small, so lightly chop or bruise them before tossing them in with the frying spices. They also freeze very well, in my experience, since they're small and mostly dry. I found them in an Asian supermarket we're lucky to have in Seattle, in the fridge section, and about $1 bought me more than I'd need if I doubled there recipe I had for a cook-in curry sauce (meant to feed 4). It was a handful-- maybe 2-3 packed tablespoons? (Note that Jamie Oliver's produce is much smaller than typical american supermarket produce-- I halved the onion and tomato count.)
Oh, one related tip I heard once-- direct sunlight helps break down the yellow stain of turmeric, so if you have some stained tools and containers after a good yellow indian curry, wash them and put them on the windowsill for a few days. I can't prove it works, but it seemed to. Anyone care to experiment?
Posted: Mon Sep 11, 2006 11:35 am Post subject: thai curry called panang
A suggestion to anyone new to thai curries - if you get the chance to use or try a dish with panang curry, you are in for a serious treat. It is very similar to the common red curry, but with a few different ingredients (I believe shrimp paste is one, but I am not sure) and an amazingly tangy(?) flavor.
Mixed with coconut milk , some fish sauce and your protein of choice, served over some jasmine rice with cilantro or kaffir lime leaves... Indescribable.
For those who might want to grow curry leaf, they should ask for Murraya koenigii. (Curry plant Helichrysum italicum is sold in some herb stores and is quite disappointing in comparison to curry leaf.) They are not the easiest plant to grow in colder climates though. They like sun and warmth and of course, have to be overwintered indoors if the night temperatures even vaguely approach freezing. A University of Oklahoma site says that the night temperatures shouldn't go below 18C/65F (Not the easiest plant to find these days - apparently there are restrictions in USA on the imported seeds. Richters in Canada used to sell them but it has been a couple of years since I've seen them listed in the catalogue.)
I was surprised to see a note that curry leaf is not used so much in Thai cooking. I'm by no means an expert, but I though that those were curry leaves I've seen floating around in the green curries at Thai restaurants. Maybe they are kaffir lime leaves?
My guess would be cilantro, aka coriander leaves. It's often an ingredient in Thai cooking, and, being very much like parsley, it is often used to garnish a liquidy dish.
Cilantro is very limp if it's floating in a warm sauce, while lime leaves are waxier and should stay firm if uncooked. But the best way to tell is to smell it, either in your mouth or mash it between your fingers and sniff deeply.
Posted: Thu Oct 05, 2006 1:33 pm Post subject: Indian curry.
It is interesting reading all the comments and information regarding the Indian Curry and Spices. In one of the letters I find something that I would like to clarify. Quoted "Turmeric is, as you say, basically a coloring - I was told it is used as a cheap alternative to saffron although that is added later." Turmeric is a spice by itself. Sometimes it is used as an alternative to saffron which is expensive, but turneric has its own flavour. Turmeric has many medical values and and for one eg. in India turmeric is used as an antiseptic in home remidies, for cuts and wounds. There are many other uses too.
Posted: Wed Oct 11, 2006 1:08 pm Post subject: Curry leaf tree seeds; Murraya Koenigii
I have curry leaf seeds that are just becoming ripe. If anyone would like to buy some, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you some. These are still on the tree and will be ready to plant in about a week or so.
I once heard a story bout origins of Japanese curry, and it claims that Japanese curry indeed was originally British. It harks back to the time when Japanese Navy was first organized, which was done with British assistance. And with many other things Japanese adopted a staple food for sailors, which in that time happened to be a curry rice (ship's biscuit and salted beef probably dropped out of equation somewhere along the road) in a British sense of the word.
Admiralty liked it, because it was relatively inexpensive -- you can save greatly on meat there, cooks liked it because it was easy to make and serve, and sailors liked it, because it was generally better than almost everything they ever had in their lives -- Japanese sailors of the time were generally a conscripts from startlingly poor peasant villages.
So, when the sailors were eventually discharged frome the service, they brought the idea (together with recipe and, most probably, some canned British curry powder) to their home willages and towns, and this is generally how Japanese curry took off.
Joined: 28 Nov 2006 Posts: 1 Location: Astana, Kazakhstan
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