While the word “curry” might first bring about thoughts of Indian food, different types of curry can be found all over the world. Places like China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Great Britain, South Africa and the West Indies all have their own unique curry dishes, so a curry’s flavor and technique can vary extensively depending on where it’s from.
The word curry is actually derived from Western culture to refer to a variety of dishes that originated in South Asian countries. The name was adopted from the Tamil word, kari, which means “sauce or relish for rice.” Curries contain a complex mix of spices, fresh herbs and chilies and the proportions of these ingredients vary depending on national, regional, religious or family traditions.
Curry powder is not something you will likely find in India. During the mid-17th century, members of the British East India Company became familiar with the term kari, when trading spices with Indian merchants. The mix became popular in Great Britain, where they started selling a pre-ground mix dubbed “curry powder.”
The yellow-orange powder you see in stores is commercially prepared with a mix of spices like coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and chili peppers. It gets its yellow color from the turmeric. Many of these same ingredients closely reflect garam masala, a spice mix used in north India. You can make your own garam masala by toasting whole spices like cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, dried chilies, cinnamon and nutmeg, then grinding them into a powder. You can keep this mixture for up to a month in an airtight container, but it best used quickly while the flavors are fresh.
While Indian dishes tend to use more dry spices, Thai cuisine often uses curry paste and fresh herbs instead. Thai curries are cooked for a shorter period of time and typically include vegetables, chicken, seafood accented with fresh herbs like mint, cilantro and basil. They also tend to be soupier, thanks to the addition of coconut milk or water.
Unlike Indian curries, in which where the spice lingers on the palate, Thai curries deliver the heat upfront because of those fresh ingredients. Thai curry paste usually is made of fresh chilies, lemon grass, galangal (ginger), garlic, shallot, kefir lime leaves, cilantro roots and shrimp paste, with spices like cumin seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric.The red chilies that make red curry paste are moderate in heat; fresh green chilies give green curry pastes a spicy kick; and the yellow peppers in yellow curry paste are the most mellow.
You can find curry pastes at your local Asian market or organic grocery. It is also much cheaper to buy whole spices in bulk, like at Maple City Market in Goshen, Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend or Whole Foods in Mishawaka.
Ready to try whipping up your own curry? Give this Coconut Curry Soup with Red Lentils a whirl.