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Kitchen Notes


by Michael Chu
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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.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on August 25, 2006 at 07:37 PM
31 comments on Curry:(Post a comment)

On August 26, 2006 at 04:31 PM, heather (guest) said...
Subject: Curry Powders
Excellent article yet again. Penzey's has many different curry powder blends and their spices are a better quality than what is available at the grocery store.

On August 27, 2006 at 10:32 AM, jbwebb (guest) said...
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! :)

On August 27, 2006 at 03:10 PM, kevmalone (guest) said...
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.

On August 28, 2006 at 05:28 PM, aarquez (guest) said...
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.

On September 04, 2006 at 02:05 PM, chakra (guest) said...
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.

On September 05, 2006 at 03:53 AM, LAN3 said...
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?

On September 11, 2006 at 07:35 AM, ben (guest) said...
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.

On September 18, 2006 at 08:16 AM, e_j_m (guest) said...
Good article.

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?

On September 23, 2006 at 07:36 PM, LAN3 said...
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.

On September 25, 2006 at 03:53 PM, Thor said...
Subject: Limp Floating Leaves
Kaffir lime leaves are generally not very tender. Unless used as a garnish, they are usually sliced into very thin strips, minced small, or pounded into a paste with other ingredients.

The leaves I normally encounter floating in Thai curry are Thai basil leaves. They have a licorice like flavor that is very unique.

On October 05, 2006 at 09:33 AM, Jenny (guest) said...
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.

On October 11, 2006 at 09:08 AM, CurryChef (guest) said...
Subject: Curry leaf tree seeds; Murraya Koenigii
Hi all,
I have curry leaf seeds that are just becoming ripe. If anyone would like to buy some, e-mail me at and I will send you some. These are still on the tree and will be ready to plant in about a week or so.

On October 17, 2006 at 07:58 PM, Khathi (guest) said...
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.

On November 28, 2006 at 05:59 PM, SaffronTips said...
If you think a collection of articles on Saffron might be of interest or use to you, and want to find out more, feel free to visit .
btw, I don't sell anything, the site is just a collection of articles that I've collated, all used with permission. (You can click on the Articles1, 2, 3 & 4 links on the top right for a list of more.)

On February 25, 2007 at 12:08 PM, Hal (guest) said...
Subject: Tumeric in Curry
A much lesser known family of curries is the Sri Lankan curry, which is characterized by chicken, fish, or vegetables in cooked in spices and coconut milk. One of the Sri Lankans I talked to said that tumeric is a natural preservative and eliminates the need for refrigeration of leftover curry, which is why they use it. Sri Lanka is very hot, and refrigerators were uncommon in the region I visited, but food can be left out for days with no ill effects.

On April 01, 2007 at 07:19 PM, Peter (guest) said...
Subject: Curry should be avoided
From what I understand, cooking with curry produces aerosolized oil that soaks into porous surfaces and never leaves. It can damage the resale/rental value of properties as nobody wants to rent it, and can make enemies of neighbors when the stench seeps into neighboring units triggering lawsuits.

Attempting to 'cover it up' as some people do by using some nonsense oil or toxic chemical based 'air freshener' makes the problem worse, not better, because now you have a cocktail of oils present. So if you are looking at a prospective place to rent, especially if the kitchen has an 'air freshener' plugged in and the previous tenants were East Indian, there is a big problem.

It is my opinion that cooking with curry should be banned in lease agreements, along with smoking indoors.

On April 28, 2007 at 04:59 PM, Guest (guest) said...
Subject: Murray Koenigii "Curry Leaf" and Citrus Hytrix &qu
I purchased a small Murraya Koenigii plant and a small Kaffir lime plant from a few years back. When the Murraya Koenigii blossoms it has a really lovely frangrance and I love the smell of the crushed leaves. I just checked the Logee website and they still have these plants available. They make nice houseplants and do not succumb to the usual pests that kill all my indor plants.

On May 01, 2007 at 07:27 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Re: Curry should be avoided
Peter wrote:
From what I understand, cooking with curry produces aerosolized oil that soaks into porous surfaces and never leaves. It can damage the resale/rental value of properties as nobody wants to rent it, and can make enemies of neighbors when the stench seeps into neighboring units triggering lawsuits.

Attempting to 'cover it up' as some people do by using some nonsense oil or toxic chemical based 'air freshener' makes the problem worse, not better, because now you have a cocktail of oils present. So if you are looking at a prospective place to rent, especially if the kitchen has an 'air freshener' plugged in and the previous tenants were East Indian, there is a big problem.

It is my opinion that cooking with curry should be banned in lease agreements, along with smoking indoors.


Cooking anything creates aerosolized oils that embed themselves in porous surfaces throughout the kitchen.

Should cooking Italian be banned in lease agreements? Or is it OK because you like the smell?

On May 28, 2007 at 02:51 PM, none yet (guest) said...
Subject: huh?

It is my opinion that cooking with curry should be banned in lease agreements, along with smoking indoors.

and it is my opinion that you should be banned from posting such - in my humblest opinion - crap.

apologies for such a direct statement, but i believe that this is a suitably strong way for me to register my protest at your obvious naivete. i mean, how can you say that only indian cooking causes obnoxious curry oil smells in kitchens and stuff? what about barbequeing (sp?) or something similar from whatever part of the world you're? does that leave "agreaable" smells? what about apartments (in ny atleast) that don't have an exhaust fan (something so basic that almost every village loo in india has one)? does crap smell sweet?

wake up, chap.

On June 30, 2007 at 08:55 PM, Faraz (guest) said...
Subject: thanks
Thanks a lot for this article. I have been tired of telling people that Indian curry is not what they show encased in a bottle :)

On August 02, 2007 at 12:05 AM, BAB - Cuisine Engineer (guest) said...
Subject: Curry - Thanks!
The Best Article Ever - covering one the most complex, regionally defined, cuisines known to human-kind!

The objective approach is to consider the bias nature of curry critics, and move on!

On January 06, 2008 at 11:36 PM, gfairbairn said...
Subject: Awesome
this was a great read. My wife is from England and had never really had any other curry besides the curries she had had when she lived in England. When we moved back here to the states, it took a long time to find a curry that she liked. I started experimenting with my own curry making and have slowly turned her more into liking a variety of curries now. I will have to have her read this so she can read for herself what I have been telling her for years...the british have their own version of curry...she just doesn't believe me.

On November 07, 2008 at 11:48 AM, Too LAzy To Sign Up (guest) said...
Subject: Curry
"any dish that begins with toasted spices can be considered a curry."

I'm sorry, but this is just not correct, especially in Indian cuisine. Western chefs have spread a lot of confusion about the meaning of curry.

My favorite book on Indian cuisine is by Sylvia Panjabi and is called Great Curries of India and I am married to an Indian and spend about 4 hours cooking Indian food every day.

A combination of fried spices is called a masala. The packaged spice combinations you buy are typically also called masalas in India, and if they aren't, it's either because they are intended to be used IN a curry dish or it was labeled wrongly by people who don't know the meaning (happens a lot in India!)

A Curry is simply the liquid part that comes later.

A curry is always started with a masala (fried spices), but a masala does not always become part of a curry.

The dish the masala (spices usually friend in oil or clarified butter) goes into can be a dry dish (called a subzee) or a wet dish (meaning it has a curry).

In summary, a curry is the thin or thick gravy-like liquid part of a dish.

In addition, the majority of Indian curries do not in fact use curry leaf (although it's an excellent fragrance for dals and some meat dishes).

The most common spice in a curry is chili in most parts of India.

The most common masala is called "garam masala", the contents of which also differ depending on reguion/village.

Natasha T. Verma

On November 07, 2008 at 02:05 PM, SAME LAZY CHICK (guest) said...
Subject: correction
The author I mentioned is wrong; her name is camellia panjabi.

Let me clarify about the curry powder: in India it's usually a masala that makes the base of a curry, some refer to this as a curry powder. But it's the creationof a liquid that is what makes a curry. Dry dishes (called subzee) are made with masala but or curry powder (as some call it) but are not curry-based or called curry.

On February 14, 2009 at 07:15 PM, Soma (guest) said...
Nice article on Curry. I would like to mention tho' that the use of Curry leaves is pretty much limited to the Southern & South Western part of India. If they are at all used in the other parts, it is to prepare the pre mentioned regional dishes.

Also spices are not always toasted/fried before... they may be added anytime during the cooking process.


On February 15, 2009 at 12:40 PM, Jim Cooley said...
Soma is right, curry leaves are used mainly in Kerala, the south-western state of India.

Reminds me of the time I tried to bring a curry tree back with me and got busted by the Ag officer at the airport. We had a good laugh because I had plenty of company. But I didn't get to keep the tree... :(

Turmeric does aerosolize when heated in oil and leaves a yellow residue behind. Very hard to clean, so make sure you have an exhaust fan running when you heat those spices!

On February 28, 2010 at 07:30 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: curry leaf
surely this refers to 'Methi Leaf' ie the leaf of funugreek the seeds of which provide a much more potent addition to Indian curries. No mention in your comments of Malay and Singaporean curries. Also, FRY your spices first don't toast em. Fitz (Nottingham UK)

On February 28, 2010 at 12:31 PM, Jim Cooley said...
No Guest, methi and curry are two different spices. And to correct you again, one toasts spices when making a masala (garam, etc.), and then fries the resulting masala when making a curry.

Other than that, you are spot on! :D

BTW, I've discovered that alcohol is a really good solvent for turmeric stains. Mix half, water half isopropyl (70%) with a little Dawn or other detergent, spray on clothes and rub before washing.

On March 31, 2010 at 08:39 PM, akgenuske (guest) said...
This is a great article, wonderful clarification and description. I love curry from all regions and have always wondered why they tasted different. Thank you for the effort!

On August 07, 2011 at 01:16 PM, Megs (guest) said...
Subject: Lemon to remove stains
Some eat curries with naan and end up staining the nails and fingers. A tip for removing the stain was to soak your fingertips in lemon juice.

Not sure if that would be a good way to remove stains or utensils and other items. I'll have to try that out next time.

Thanks for the article, I just bought a Murraya koenigii "Curry Leaf" plant from thanks to a post (currently out of stock, but they ship as soon as they become available - hopefully soon).

I can't wait! My boyfriend is Indian and was raised in Malaysia. His mom showed me how to make curry and it's amazing! So delicious and full of flavor. It definitely takes some practice if you don't use the right measurements (can be too powdery). The curry leaves smell and taste divine!

I usually buy a bag of them from the Indian store, but sometimes the store runs out. So it will be great to have a plant on hand!

Thanks again for posting this article! Love this website, just came across it today!

On August 09, 2011 at 05:27 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Turmeric and curry
Very good article, I enjoyed reading it as well as the comments. I thought I would add my $0.02's worth.

Regarding turmeric stains, yes they look horrible and the main substance is called curcumin but....

Curcumin is an 'indicator' substance. Adding an acid - such as lemon juice- to turmeric will make it bright yellow. An alkali (sodium bicarb or baking powder) will turn it red. Try using oven cleaner (strong alkali) on turmeric and you'll see. Turmeric is also used as a dye or a food additive (for example in mustard), and stains on clothes could be 'fixed' permanently with the alkalines in a washing powder.

Curcumin was used as a boron test if I recall, and some sources say that borax is a good turmeric stain remover, but I never tried it.

What I do know from personal experience is that UV light breaks down rapidly curcumin stains, so if your white shirt has a yellow splodge on it, try leaving it in bright sunlight for a while.
However if you are dealing with a stain on the carpet in the middle of the room I guess the only option is to bring in a sunbed....

Regarding the origin of the word 'curry', I heard another story. Basically 'curry' comes from 'turkari' which is a cooking method similar to braising, ie frying then slow cooking in a liquid.

Comments anyone?

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