Let’s start by getting this out of the way: Curry Powder is not East Indian cuisine. Not by a long shot. In Indian cuisine, curry is a labour of love with a masala (spices) made fresh for a dish pretty much every time. The spice blends used will vary by dish, by region and by individual cook. Furthermore, in complex dishes, spices are added at many different steps in the cooking. It isn’t unusual to fry spices in oil along with garlic and ginger at the beginning of a recipe, to add more when the water is added for stewing and then to dust the finished delicacy with spices yet again.
Curry powder on the other hand is all of the spices found in most curry masalas ground together all at once in either raw or roasted form. Its origins most likely lie in British colonialism and its sorry attempt to short-cut a way to Indian cuisine; or try and add flavour beyond salt and pepper to its culinary palate. From there, curry powder has travelled the world being exported to other colonies and countries where it’s been adapted to locally available tastes and spices.
In the modern kitchen, including my own, curry powder has nonetheless forged itself an important place. It saves the day when the yearning for rich curry flavour comes head-to-head with a lack of time to make the real deal. Insta-curry may not be authentic, but it can be quite tasty. The versatile little yellow powder can also jazz up everything from deviled eggs and potato salad to mayonnaise or tofu spread.
There are dozens of curry powders to choose from and many of them are really quite excellent therefore unless you happen to want some quality time with your mortar and pestle (or spice-devoted coffee grinder…), you need never get into the specifics of making it for yourself. If you do want to attempt it however, here’s how you’d go about it.
Most curry powders contains between five and a dozen spices, the main one usually although not always being turmeric. Turmeric gives the powder its characteristic yellow colour, staining everything it touches. As an aside, this explains why that same spice is used to dye the robes of Buddhist Monks a rich golden hue. It also has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and quite neutral tasting while conferring many different health benefits when used in doses far larger than those you’ll ever get from a plate of food. All this, minus the medicinal effects, makes it the filler spice extraordinaire.
Pretty much all powders will also contain the 3-Cs: coriander, cumin and cayenne. Those three spices along with the turmeric are a minimum making up the core of the taste we associate with curry out here in the West. And incidentally, when turmeric isn’t the lion’s share of a curry powder blend, coriander will usually step in and take its place. Beyond that the ‘’ethnicity’’ of the mixture, for fail of a better word, is determined by the other herbs built around the core.
Jamaican curry powders will usually include allspice, ginger, fenugreek and nutmeg. Those hailing from Trinidad can have roasted dahl (bean), bay and mace. Japanese curry powder tends to be a bit sweeter often including fennel, star anise and cinnamon. More traditional Indo-British curry powder gains its distinctive aroma from cardamom and cloves while the ever-popular Madras Curry blend can throw in pretty much every East Indian spice in the book depending on which recipe or supplier you consult.
When it comes to the overall combination, the more spices included in the mix, the more multi-dimensionality and depth you’ll get – insofar as certain principles are respected – this isn’t a spice slinging free-for-all after all. The typical construction of a fine curry powder works as follows:
- 40-75% binding or binding-sweet spices
- 15-30% bitter spices
- 5-15% aromatic spices
- 5-15% hot spices
In case you’re not familiar with what types of spices fit where, here’s a quick-reference with the spices most commonly found in various curry blends:
- Binding or binding-sweet spices: turmeric, coriander, fennel, black mustard, dahl
- Bitter spices: cumin, ginger, fenugreek, asafoetida, cacao
- Aromatic: cardamom, star anise, clove, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, allspice, bay leaf, cassia, galangal, lemongrass, aniseed
- Sweet: cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, allspice, coriander, paprika
- Spicy: cayenne, black pepper, white pepper, white mustard, ginger, nigella, galangal, chile
As you’ll see, some ingredients overlap from one section to another and can be used in a number of different ways to affect the overall flavour balance of the mixture.
The spices can either be dry-roasted or not, or partially so, prior to grinding and storage in a cool, dry place. If you choose to work with unroasted spices, then do make sure to fry the curry powder in oil a couple of minutes, or stew it properly, as this will cook it and develop the flavours – getting them to work with both each other and the food they’re being prepared alongside.
In the references below, you’ll find books, blogs and sites that have lots of recipes to choose from, most of which I’ve made at some point in time. Be adventurous, have fun, and you too can have at least seven different quality curry powders lining your kitchen spice cabinet, taking up space…
From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail, Madhur Jaffrey, Clarkson Potter. ISBN 0-609-60704-9
La cuisine et le goût des épices, by Ethné et Philippe deVienne, Trécarré. ISBN 978-2-89568-352-0