Now we have begun a new chapter in culinary school – Asian cooking. This includes the entire continent and therefore we are only able to hit the highlights in the two weeks time we are given.
The first thing we cooked was curries. Yum. This is the food you order and scarf down loving every bite, but wonder after the meal what exactly you were eating. You can’t remember if you ordered chicken or beef because the meat could have been either really. Was that a piece of carrot you tasted? It could have been a pepper. You love the spices but have no idea how they create that dish from a powdered curry blend, like the one you keep on your spice shelf. If you had any leftover to take home you are even more surprised the next day when you open the container and a large pool of grease has risen to the top. Was it really that greasy? But if you are like me, none of this prevents you from going back and ordering your favorite curry dish and experiencing the deliciousness all over again.
What is it that is so wonderful about curries? First comes the spice. Curries have a sweet, spicy, sour, and salty flavor profile. Not one particular flavor jumps out, a good curry is well balanced. Second would be the fragrance. They smell sweet and are usually served with the most fragrant rice of all, basmati. Third would have to be all the crazy condiments they are served with. Many types of wonderful chutneys and raitas. Believe it or not, America did not invent the condiment. There was a large and flourishing condiment culture in India and Asia for hundreds of years.
The word curry comes from the Southern Indian word kari, meaning “sauce”. It is a catch all word. Curry powders, or masalas, are any spice blend used to flavor a gravy-based Indian dish. Which spices are used differs greatly depending on the region of India.
The essential elements of an Indian curry include:
- Fat: Ghee (roasted clarified butter) is the most commonly used, vanaspati ghee (artificial ghee that is really shortening), peanut oil or mustard oil
- Seasonings: Whole spices, seeds, curries, masalas, chiles, herbs, ground spices
- Thickener: Ground legumes, ground nuts, chickpea flour, vegetable purees, yogurt, coconut milk
- Sauce base: Broths, vegetable purees
- Protein/Vegetables: Any type of seafood, meat or poultry cut into small bite size pieces. India has a large vegetarian segment that uses beans and legumes extensively. In Thai curries you will see more tofu. Keep in mind we use a large amount of protein here in America, but the main focus of a traditional curry/masala is the gravy-based sauce and the rice.
Method for cooking an Indian curry:
- Mix your favorite curry/masala spice blend (look up recipes for your favorite, there are too many to list here). Toast spices (optional) and grind in a spice grinder to make a fine powder.
- Add a small amount of water to your spice blend to make a curry paste.
- Heat the fat, ghee usually (they aren’t modest about using fat) over high heat in a wok.
- Optional: add other spices and cook in the fat to release flavor, do not burn or they will become bitter.
- Add onions, and pan-fry until golden.
- Add curry paste, garlic and ginger and cook over medium to med-high heat about 4-5 minutes. The spices will become fragrant and much of the water will be released.
- Add your thickener and sauce base. Taste to adjust seasoning with salt.
- Simmer several minutes to merry the flavors.
- Add your protein or vegetables and cook through. Do not overcook your meats or proteins. Stop cooking when they are just done. Keep the sauce at a simmer only (do not boil the meat it will become tough).
- Stir in sour/acidic elements, if using, such as lime juice, yogurt or lemon.
- Garnish with cilantro leaves.
- Serve with basmati rice, chutneys, and raita.
Nutrition Recommendations: Curries can be made healthy, but are traditionally high in fat and salt. When you are cooking with so many wonderful spices and vegetables, it is easy to make a lower-fat version at home without compromising much flavor. Begin with a healthy vegetable oil, like canola. Use a moderate amount in a large non-stick pan. Use no salt added vegetable purees (such as tomatoes) and broths. Choose lean meats and low-fat tofu. By cooking a vegetarian version with beans or legumes and a variety of vegetables, you can increase fiber and antioxidant values in the dish. Many of the spices used are considered to have health benefits. Turmeric, for one, has been found in studies to be a powerful anti-inflammatory. Ginger is aids in digestion as well as another being anti-inflammatory.
Curries have the potential to be wonderfully tasty and healthy dishes if made at home. Find some curry and masala spice blend recipes and try them out. Just make sure you know if they are extra hot and spicy first. I would strongly discourage the use of the typical curry powder at your local grocery store. Check your area for Indian specialty food stores for the real thing. Buying your own whole spices and grinding them right before using ensures the best flavor.