Like most Americans, I did not grow up eating Indian food. Discovering Far Eastern flavors came late for me, and now I can’t get enough of the spice combinations known as curry – ginger, turmeric, coriander, cumin, and up to a dozen companion spices, depending on the dish. Last week I made creamy curried pumpkin soup, and tomorrow’s rice will get a simple buttermilk curry. They may sound strange, but curry cookies are delicious.
Part of my fascination comes with following a plant-forward diet. Vegetarian cuisine has deep roots in Indian culture and religious traditions, so many curry sauces are simply fantastic with rice and vegetables. You also can rub sturdy vegetables like cauliflower, carrots, kohlrabi, rutabaga, potatoes, etc., with a “dry curry” before roasting them in a hot oven. If you want to eat better veggies more often, you need to warm up to curry.
The Origins of Curry
The word “curry” comes from kari, the word for sauce in Tamil, the language of Southern India. Traditional curry dishes from India, Thailand and beyond number in the thousands, and are usually richly flavored sauces to go with rice.
Please forgive me for oversimplifying here. Recently a famous American food writer dismissed Indian food as unappealing, which led to an eloquent response by food expert Padma Lashmi. At the center of the conflict was curry, clarified here by Lashmi:
“A quick review on curry: It was a term first coined by European colonizers in 1500s India to describe all the sauce-based dishes they found. The British then commercialized and sold a spice blend under the name “curry powder,” what you see in your basic grocery store today.”
If only it were that simple. Commercial curry powders vary enormously. Most contain turmeric, coriander, cumin and cayenne, but other ingredients include (but are not limited to) fenugreek, mustard, paprika, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, and caraway. Jamaican curry powder includes allspice, while curry leaves (Murraya koenigii), which are similar to bay leaves, are rarely used in any of the best-selling blends.
Composing a Curry
Enough about commercial curry powders, which are handy and versatile, but not the whole story. Like any superb sauce, a good “wet” curry features several layers of flavor.
For starters, whole spices may be roasted in a dry pan, which smells divine. They may be added to the dish later, coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle.
Meanwhile, you might have onions, garlic and ginger simmering in a pan until soft in a neutral oil. Now you add spices according to your recipe (and/or curry powder) and cook a minute more, until the aroma is too wonderful to bear.
Thai style curry sauces often use coconut milk as the liquid, or you can head toward a mellow masala by using a jar of tomatoes. Milk, yogurt, buttermilk, or plant-based milk will produce a creamy sauce that's perfect for pairing with cooked greens. If a thickener is needed then cornstarch, flour, or rice flour will fill the bill.
You can be endlessly creative making curries, which can be partnered with any garden vegetable you care to name. Right now a peanut-spiked sweet potato curry sounds good, or maybe Brussels sprouts masala. Green beans with red curry (pad prik king or phat phrik khing) is the recipe you need in late summer when peppers and green beans are ripe, or how about chickpea and eggplant curry with mint chutney? As for my curry cookies, they are a simple refrigerator sugar cookie flavored with nuts and a teaspoon of curry powder. Because I like curry, I add more.