Sunday, August 3, 2008

Curry Powder

I'm a huge fan of Indian food. I love big flavors and Indian food combines all kinds of spices to deliver big flavor. And, the cuisine in India is so broad with so many regional variations that I never get tired of it. My wife and I have had the conversation many times that if our diets were restricted to the food from a single country—heaven forbid!—it would be from India. Who else in the world combines green beans, coconut, and mustard seeds into an amazing taste and texture sensation? (Oops, my northern friends are going to kill me for mentioning a canonical southern dish!)

With this love of Indian cooking, about 20 years ago I started teaching myself how to cook Indian food, but more importantly, learning the regional metaphors and spice mixes so that I could create my own dishes. When I learn a cuisine, I don't really try to learn individual dishes. I learn how to think in that cuisine, to understand techniques, flavor metaphors, and what ingredients normally go together to make that cuisine unique.

I've learned from a lot of people along the way: from the southern Indians that worked for me in the high tech world, from a crazy Goan chef in Fairfax who taught me all about coconut milk-based fish curries, from eating in dozens of restaurants, from reading dozens of books, from interrogating the proprietors of many Indian groceries, from talking with the cooks at an Afghani kebab shack (northern Indian food is highly similar to a greater pan-central Asian cuisine encompassing food from Iran to Bhutan), and lately, from working side by side with Shiv Kumar at his Sona Restaurant learning his Punjabi take on the cuisine.

It's all been a fascinating journey and yet for all I do know, it's a vast subject and I can see that I only know the very tip of a very, very big iceberg.

One of the first things that any student of Indian cuisine learns is that there is no such thing as "curry powder." Curry powder was no doubt brought to the world by the Brits as a means to bring some of the native Indian flavors back to England. As ubiquitous as curry powder is in the English-speaking world, it is mostly an alien concept in India.

The Indians make various spice mixes called masalas (or sambar podi or paunch phoron) as base flavorings for dishes, yet none of them seem to be close to what we know as standardized curry powder. Each cook's basic masala will be slightly different (but sadly, more and more younger Indians are relying on commercial mixes), lending character and originality to the end dish. Advanced cooks make different mixes for different dishes in the quantity needed for that dish.

Likewise, I have no curry powder. I have developed my own flavor metaphors over the years and I know exactly what spices to use to achieve the end result that I desire. I know that I really like the sweet spices of northern cooking with pork, but that I like a good bit of cumin and less coriander with lamb, and heavy on the garlic. And for gobi (cauliflower), I must have a lot of turmeric and ginger.

That said, I have a somewhat amusing anecdote from the restaurant to relate. As a restaurant that takes pride in creative vegetarian cooking, we see our share of Indians, many of whom are vegetarian. And sometimes we get into conversations about Indian food. Many of them are surprised at my knowledge of Indian cuisine.

But at times my customers assume that as an American, I can't possibly know anything about the subject. One woman in particular comes to mind because after a short conversation, she laid a land mine for me, "So, what brand curry powder do you use?"

Without missing a beat, I said, "Probably the same one that you use."

She hesitated for a couple of pregnant seconds and I could see the "but" forming on her lips. I could also see when my meaning finally came to her, and smart woman that she is, she avoided the mine I left for her. I smiled and wished her well with her dinner.


  1. hi; I blog poetry mostly at, but I will be visiting Winchester afternoon August 27th to afternoon August 28; I'm a foodie with psycho food allergies. Thus I was at your blog.

    In my old grill garden, I'd planted some curry plant -- crazy, but the edible plant out of the ground smells like currymix. And it is a great smell. But I never had the courage to use it. Wonder if you have.

    Might meet next week! Your special menu the night after we're there sounds fab, but I'd not be able to eat it anyway; if I think we can align a dinner at your restaurant, I'll try to call ahead.

    All best,

  2. First, if you come to the restaurant, give me a shout or drop me an email to discuss your allergies.

    Second, the plant commonly called the curry plant in the US, Helichrysum italicum, looks a bit like a dusty lavender plant with a yellowish yarrow- or strawflower-like bloom.

    I have grown this plant before and have found its best use is as a fragrant ornamental in the herb garden. It doesn't taste all that good, but smells great when you bruise it.

    This is very different from the curry tree (Murraya koenigii) whose fresh leaves are used commonly in Southern and Eastern Indian food in the same manner that we use bay leaves in the west. These leaves have great curry flavor.