Thursday, November 26, 2009

Breaking down curry powders

As you may know, curry powders are easily available at almost any supermarket given the piqued interest in Indian cuisine, but I bet you can't guess what the difference is between these curry powders and the "curry powders" used in traditional Indian cookery. So let's take a look.

Most curry powders that you buy at the store come with a blend of spices that go something like this: dried coriander seeds, red chillies, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamoms, cloves, black pepper, cumin seeds and poppy seeds (sometimes fenugreek and garlic). This is all well and good and it certainly includes many of the spices that are used in Indian cuisine; however, it just doesn't do it justice. First of all, these powders can only be kept on a shelf for a matter of weeks before they start to lose their piquancy. Second, curry powder producers tend to use cheap spices in order to lower the price of production, which most western users won't be able to tell, because they've never been to India or had true Indian cuisine. Third, they completely omit or use very little nutmeg and mace due to their high costs. These spices are pivotal to bringing out flavors.

If you really want to go traditional, then poppy would not even be used. This spice was first used in the mid-1800s when the British mandated the growing of poppy fields in the Northeastern state of Bengal in order to participate in highly-profitable trade with the western world and China. As a result of this mandate, the fields that traditionally grew the fruits and veggies for the Bengali cuisine were replaced by poppy plants. With so much of it being produced, the people of Bengal eventually found a way to use it in food. Thus, this spice has only existed in the cuisine for about 150 years.

So, you might ask, what are the traditional spices used in an Indian "curry powder." To that I would say, it's not easy, because the cuisine of India varies far and wide, just as the culture and language do. But here are some standards:

******Garam Masala (A North Indian curry mixture)
This mixture consists of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black cumin seeds, nutmeg and mace. Depending on your specific taste preferences, you can change the proportions.

Start by adding equal parts cloves and black cumin seeds. Then, add equal parts cinnamon and cardamom seeds (the little black ones inside the cardamom shell), each of them being 3x as much as the cloves and black cumin seeds (for instance 1/4 ounce cloves and black cumin seeds would mean you need to add 3/4 ounce cinnamon and cardamom). Next, add a good pinch of nutmeg and mace. Grind all of them in with a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder, pass through a fine sieve and then store in an airtight container. Use within a couple of weeks for best taste.

*****Variation on Garam Masala used by Kashmiri chefs
(Kashmir is the northernmost state in India)

This mixture includes black cumin seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mace, black pepper, and nutmeg.

Add equal parts black cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. Then, add an amount of cardamom that is 4x as much as you used for the first spices listed. Last, add 1/2 as much mace and nutmeg as you used for the first spices listed. Grind, sieve, and store.

*****Madras Rasam or sambhar powder (from Chennai, formerly called Madras)

This mixture is from down south. It includes split black beans (a type of lentil/bean), white cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, and fenugreek seeds.

This one is a bit different, as you have to fry each of the ingredients separately before mixing, grinding, and storing.

Add equal parts split black beans, white cumin seeds, and coriander seeds. Then, add 1/2 as much black pepper as you used for the first spices listed. Last, add 1/4 as much fenugreek seeds as you used for the first spices listed. Grind and store.


These recipes are quick fixes for producing the flavors that you will find in Indian cuisine. Once you have mastered (which I haven't yet, by the way) the art of adding spices individually to a dish, then you can perfect your recipes by bringing out and suppressing certain tastes.