Widely used in Indian cooking, authentic Indian curry powder is freshly ground each day and can vary dramatically depending on the region and the cook.
Curry powder is actually a pulverized blend of up to 20 spices, herbs and seeds. Among those most commonly used are cardamom, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek, mace, nutmeg, red and black pepper, poppy and sesame seeds, saffron, tamarind and turmeric (the latter is what gives curried dishes their characteristic yellow color).
Commercial curry powder--which bears little resemblance to the freshly ground blends of southern India--comes in two basic styles: standard, and the hotter of the two, "Madras" curry powder.
Curry powder is used to flavor soups and stews, and is great for adding a kick to all kinds of sauces and marinades, as well as meatloaf and burgers, and chicken, tuna, pasta and potato salads. Since curry powder quickly loses its pungency, it should be stored, airtight, no longer than two months.
"Curry powder" as we know it was a British invention, not an Indian one, intended to capture the flavor of Indian cooking without the painstaking effort of custom-blending, roasting and grinding spices for every dish prepared. And even more strangely, most curry powder doesn't even contain curry leaves! Curry became a great favorite in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, and its popularity soon spread to Japan.
Americans once primarily enjoyed curry in Indian and Thai restaurants. Now, curry blends are being added to familiar foods, from a simple roast chicken breast to sautéed shrimp and vegetables. Curry is a key element of South and Southeast Asian, Caribbean, Japanese, English and Australian cooking. At the heart of most curry blends is a flavor base of black or red pepper, coriander and cumin. A number of spices can be added to this base to create different flavor experiences. Garam masala, for example, is a sweeter curry, featuring cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Hot Madras curry delivers the heat and intense flavor of the Madras region of India and also includes fenugreek, turmeric and garlic. Red curry blends are a complex mix of select spices, chile peppers and cardamom. As Americans become more familiar with curry, they're discovering a wide range of flavor possibilities.
What the Experts Say
"We like to combine curry with fruits such as apples, bananas and passion fruit, and sweeter flavors like vanilla," says Chef Shawn McClain, of Spring and Green Zebra in Chicago. "For example, we serve a Maine lobster spring roll with passion fruit-curry sauce."
Perfect Flavor Partners Include:
basil, cilantro, citrus, coconut, garlic, ginger, mango, mint, passion fruit, plantains, vanilla and yogurt
Bright golden yellow or toasty brown.
Flavor & Aroma
Both musky and bright; sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy
Since up to 20 spices can comprise curry powder, its profile is complex. Turmeric and fenugreek add earthiness; cinnamon and cardamom add sweetness; chiles and pepper add heat