Nothing creates as much confusion and misunderstanding in Indian cooking as the use of the term “curry”. Even dictionaries frequently define this incorrectly when applying it to culinary practices.
First, let me clarify for those who don’t know, there is no such spice as “curry”. Curry powder is a masala, or spice mix, which could contain any of several spices. Typical curry powder contains turmeric, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and ground red chili. Other ingredients may include cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, asafoetida, cardamom, black pepper, or mace. There is no one true curry powder, it’s just one of many types of masalas used in Indian cooking and varies from one cook to another, let alone from one region to another. Cheap pre-packaged curry mixes frequently include a large amount of turmeric, giving it the yellow color that many Westerners have come to believe is typical of curry. In India, at least, there really is no “typical” curry powder.
However, such has been the popularity of “curry powder” in the west that “curry powder” has become common inside India as well. Many cooks in India now rely on this as a staple of their cupboard, but there is still wide variation in the actual makeup of the mixture, so that each cook has a particular formulation or brand that they swear by which may bear little resemblance to someone else’s favorite.
I actually don’t have a lot of dishes that call for curry powder. I have more dishes that call for a different masala blend, garam masala. This, too, does not have a single formulation, but could be formulated in many different blends. It can still be a useful shortcut.
More typically, Indian cooks use individual ground and whole spices in characteristic ways. I’m most familiar with South Indian style of cooking, so I’m going to give you a basic “curry” recipe today.
This is a basic technique for making a vegetable curry.
We will be quick frying spices in hot oil, and some of these spices will burn quite rapidly, so you need to prepare all ingredients in advance.
Gather the following in small bowls (my bachelor son has been known to use a roommate’s shot glasses) so they are ready to use immediately:
1 tsp urad dahl
1 tsp chana dahl
1 T whole cumin seed
1 T black mustard seed
1 1/2 tsp crushed red chili pepper
(HOT chilis, not American style chili powder)
10-12 fresh neem or “curry” leaves
If you absolutely can’t get hold of fresh, you may use dried, but it’s not nearly as good.
1 T garam masala
1 tsp turmeric (optional)
1 to 2 onions, chopped
1 T minced ginger or ginger paste
2 tsp minced garlic OR 2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 minced green chilis (OPTIONAL, only if you want it HOT)
VEGETABLES – add salt to taste with your choice of veggies
For the vegetables you could use 2 or 3 cups of the veggies of your choice, such as:
Potatoes and cauliflower
Carrots, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, yellow squash
Eggplant, tomatoes, green peppers
Eggplant, tomatoes, carrots
Cabbage and potatoes
or just use your imagination. Just have them ready to go before you start frying the spices.
Now for the spice fry:
Heat 2 or 3 T of oil in a good quality heavy frying pan. The pan needs to be large enough to accommodate your veggies.
Turn heat to fairly high. Add GROUP 1 when it’s hot, but not all the way heated up.
When the dahls start to turn color, immediately add GROUP 2, the cumin seed.
When the cumin seed starts to brown, IMMEDIATELY add GROUP 3, the mustard seed.
If the oil is hot enough, the mustard seed will start to pop within just a second or two. If they don’t start popping in 10 or 15 seconds, turn the heat up just until they do. Immediately add GROUP 4, the crushed red pepper and fresh curry leaves.
The crushed red pepper will burn VERY quickly, so LOSE NO TIME, as soon as it starts to cook add GROUP 5, the ground spices.
Stir well and quickly add GROUP 6, the onions, garlic, and ginger. Turn the heat down to kind of medium and add your veggies according to how much time they need to cook – longest time required first. Stir well to coat. You may add a bit of water, cover, and cook on a lower heat to cook the veggies through. Not too much water though as this is usually intended to be a dryish curry, but cook it to YOUR taste. If you want a bit of sauce, just add a bit of water, but this isn’t intended to be saucy.
Feel free to experiment with this. For example, fresh (but not dried) curry leaves can go in earlier, say with GROUP 3 or even GROUP 2. The dried curry leaves will tend to burn fairly quickly, but you could get away with a bit more with the fresh as far as length of cooking time. Change the amount of garam masala, or substitute or add a good curry powder (I would leave the turmeric out if you use curry powder).