Smart Cookie: Curry

What is curry and how do you use it? After listening to this episode, you’ll be a smart cookie!


Curry is confusing.

Is it a leaf? A powder? A dish? A paste?

Let’s start figuring that out by doing away with the idea of trying to curry favor with someone. That comes from a poem written in the 1300s and has more to do with a horse than food.

Curry as we spell it, first shows up in the mid-1700s as a derivation of the Middle English word c u r y, which means “to cook.” Use of curry spices dates back to around 2600 BCE – that stands for before common era.

Today curries are a variety of dishes that typically include turmeric, chili powder, ground coriander, ground cumin, ground ginger and pepper. A curry may not contain all of these spices and cooks may add other herbs and spices as they like. Curries can be hot or mild.

Curry is most closely associated with India where cooks free-form the seasonings so they are different depending on the dish they are preparing. Curries also vary from region to region.

Curry powder is a British thing. It’s thought that when Brits came home from India, they created the powders to simulate what they’d eaten while expanding the British empire. It’s thought some of those spices found their way into goulash.

The spice mixtures are turned into pastes and added to food. The paste can be put directly on meat or vegetables. If you add very little liquid to the dish, the moisture cooks away and it’s called a dry curry. If you use the spices in more of a gravy, it’s a wet curry.

The BBC offers up a curry paste recipe that uses vinegar and vegetable oil along with a spice mixture. Yogurt or coconut milk can also be used to make pastes. In western India, they use tomatoes.

All of which brings us to masala, which simply means a mixture of spices. You may have had the dish Chicken Tikka Masala. Tikka means “bits and pieces”, so you end up with chicken bits and pieces and a mixture of spices.

You’ve probably heard of garam masala, which is the typical curry spice mix, but without the turmeric. It also has warming spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. That’s what garam means – warming.

So now that I’ve got you all excited about curry, you probably want to know the best way to use it in the kitchen.

First you can buy or create or your own curry powder and decide if you want a wet or dry curry for whatever dish you have in mind.

Then you need to make sure you have patience. A curry is not something to be cooked quickly. You need to allow time for the dish to simmer … for the spices to come out.

Remember, curry is a blend of seasonings, so don’t over do it with the mixture you create. Be subtle. Give your palate lots of interesting things to taste.

You’re also going to need some aromatics such as garlic and onion. It’s a good idea to sweat the aromatics before adding the curry paste.

After that, it’s up to you what to put in your dish. Make it fancy with shrimp or put it in rice as a side dish. Try different things.

One thing you might see in the marketplace are curry leaves. These grow on trees in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. They can be added at the end of cooking or be allowed to simmer with everything else. They are not a substitute for a curry spice mixture.

If you’re going to try these out, be sure to only use fresh leaves as drying them robs them of flavor. You can put the leaves in an airtight container and put them in the freezer for a week or so.

When you do add it to food expect to smell musk and spice with some citrus. It will taste warm, lemony and slightly bitter.

So now, when it comes to curry, you’re a smart cookie.