Beyond Curry Powder

The seasoning blends of India.

| February/March 1993

Tamil Nadu Curry Powder
Punjabi-Style Garam Masala
Chat Masala
Panch Puran 

In many homes and restaurants across the United States, the essence of Indian cooking can be expressed with one word: curry. The word calls to mind a dish of meat, eggs, or rice served with a spicy, ocher gravy or cream sauce flavored with “curry powder”, a condiment that you can buy in the spice section of any supermarket. It’s a one-of-a-kind flavor, and Americans seem to love it or hate it.

The word “curry” was coined by sixteenth-century British explorers to describe what they perceived as the ­ultimate Indian traditional spice. The origin of the word may be kari, a southern Indian word meaning sauce, or karhi, which refers to a popular, spicy, yogurt-based sauce often seasoned with the fresh leaves of curry leaf (Murraya koenigii). (This small tropical tree related to citrus should not be confused with curry plant, Helichrysum italicum, a small, white-leaved tender perennial of the daisy family.)

The notion of a single, all-purpose curry powder is also of British origin. India, by contrast, boasts an endless number of regional spice blends, or masalas, usually prepared daily from ingredients that grow locally or are otherwise readily available. These ingredients vary widely, depending partly on local climate (which changes dramatically from north to south) and even more on the intended use of the blend.

One important distinction between American curry powder and an Indian spice blend is that the latter is freshly ground from whole spices. Spices lose flavor quickly after grinding as their oils evaporate, and the light and warmth in both the supermarket and the kitchen contribute to their decline, which may already have progressed significantly during shipment and storage. Another important distinction is that the array of ingredients in an Indian spice blend is adjusted to match the recipe in which it is being used.

Garam masalas are Indian spice blends that are believed to warm the body. (American curry powder most closely resembles this category of masala.) A garam masala may contain as few as three or as many as a dozen of the warming spices, which include bay leaf, black mustard seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, peppercorns (black, green, or white), dried chilis, ginger, mace, and nutmeg. These blends often are added to a dish during the last stage of cooking to maintain their aroma.

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