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Curry and other Indian mixtures

An insight into curry, masala and various spice blends

Indian biryani dish

We all know curry, which is a mix of powdered spices that we associate with India and exotic flavors. In the mother country in reality this term is not used, instead the name of masala is used (which means mixture), and it comprehends several variants that have different uses. The term curry is a westernization, which derives from the English colonial era, in fact it was the officers returning to England who first imported this mixture, and began to market it successfully. In particular curry comes from kari, an Indian word that indicates a method of cooking in stew, and also a plant, whose leaves are used to enrich this type of preparation. In fact, these leaves are an aromatic herb with a very strong aroma and flavor, and spice mixtures like curry want to replicate their characteristics. Another difference between western and traditional Indian use is that the mixture is usually made at the time of preparation by combining the individual spices, and each family has its own particular recipe. In Europe, on the other hand, a ready-made mixture is marketed, with a not too strong taste, more or less spicy, and with a significant presence of turmeric to accentuate the yellow color.

The most used masala are the garam masala and the tandoori masala. The first is used for a wide variety of dishes, especially with vegetables and soups. It has a strong but not particularly spicy taste, although its purpose in Ayurvedic medicine is to warm the body. The tandoori masala instead is mainly used to marinate the meat that will be cooked in the traditional clay oven, called tandoori. It has a more reddish color, due to the presence of red pepper or other spices with this color, and also contains chilli. It can also be obtained from a garam masala base, making it more spicy and altering its color. Then, as we have already mentioned, there is no official recipe for either one or the other, and every cook can use different methods.

We want to mention two other masalas that have uses with specific recipes. The biryani masala and the pav bhaji masala. Biryani is a famous South Indian dish based on rice with meat or fish, and vegetables. The mixture used in addition to the basic spices of the masala can also include laurel, mint and saffron. Instead the pav bhaji is a fast-food dish very popular throughout the nation, which consists of stewed vegetables, served with crusty bread. The mixture in this case also contains amchoor.

Curry as well as powder also exists in paste, which means it is prepared with the addition of fresh ingredients, such as chili pepper, ginger, garlic and other aromatic herbs, which compact the powder of dried spices into a moist paste once chopped. Curry paste exists mainly in the red, yellow and green versions that go in the order of spiciness, where green is the most spicy and red is the most delicate. These pastes are traditionally used in Thailand, and have more pronounced aromas due to the presence of fresh ingredients. Even in this case the original name is not that of curry, but rather kaeng, or gaeng, which indicates the liquidity of the sauce, in fact these pastes are usually diluted in coconut milk.

If you like to try yourself, here is the recipe for making your own masala at home and using it in your own dishes. It is a basic recipe, which can be enriched with other ingredients, to adapt it to your tastes or to the recipe you are making. The basic spices to use are:

  • Turmeric seeds
  • Cilantro seeds
  • Cardamom
  • Black pepper
  • Powdered ginger
  • Cumin seeds
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Nutmeg

Among the optional spices that you can add we point out:

  • Fennel seeds
  • Black sesame seeds
  • Chili pepper
  • Turmeric powder

It is advisable to use the above ingredients all in the same quantity, the seeds and pepper grains should be lightly toasted and then once cold chopped together with the other spices. Once ready, the mixture can be stored in an airtight jar for a few months. Long conservation can alter the taste, and therefore is not recommended.