Custom-made spice mixtures are heart of Indian cuisine

CURRYING FAVOR

October 07, 1990|By Charlyne Varkonyi

TRUE OR FALSE: A major ingredient in curried dishes is a single dried spice in powdered form called "curry powder."

If your answer is True, Jennifer Brennan, cookbook author and curry connoisseur, has a message for you: The best way to curry favor with your guests is to make your own spice mix.

"The business of commercial curry powder is very sad because it has given people a flavor in their minds that denotes everything called a curry powder," she said in a telephone interview. Ms. Brennan, the author of the recently published "Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj" (HarperCollins Publishers, $25), grew up in Pakistan and India and spent many years in southeast Asia.

Commercial curry powder or curry spice mix is a ready-mixed combination of dried spices. Most of these spice mixes contain what Ms. Brennan calls the "Big Four" -- hot chili peppers (either fresh, such as serrano or jalapeno, or powdered, such ascayenne), cumin seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric. Any three,12p2of these spices are usually present in most curry powder or paste mixes.

But if commercial mixes aren't the best way to make a curry, why did we start using them? According to legend, Ms. Brennan says, the idea of premixing these spices came about because a British sahib with an addiction to Indian food asked his servant to mix up the spices and place them in a jar so he could enjoy his favorite Indian dishes when he returned to England.

"People think that there had to be a standard formula for curry powder," she says. "There is no standard formula. The mixture of spices fresh or dried will vary according to the dish.

"It also makes a lot of difference at what point in the cooking the various spices are added. Some should be put in and fried in the beginning. Turmeric is bitter, for example, and has to be well cooked. If it is not cooked long enough, the recipe will have a bitter taste. Others are sweeter spices that should be added xTC toward the end -- cardamom, cloves and cinnamon."

In Indian food, the inspiration for all curried dishes wherever they are eaten, the spice mix is called a masala. Always freshly prepared, a masala is made from a combination of dry ground spices and wet ingredients, such as garlic, onions, ginger and fresh herbs. Secondary spices in masalas can include fenugreek, black pepper, asafetida (the dried resin of a plant similar to fennel) and mellow spices such as allspice, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg.

"Over twenty different spices are used in varying combinations for currying," Ms. Brennan wrote in "The Cuisines of Asia" (St. Martin's Press, $13.95). "It's quite possible that in 200 dishes, the same exact spice mix will not be duplicated! So much for the 'single' spice mix theory of commercial curry powder."

If you must grind your spices in advance, Ms. Brennan suggests that you store them in a tightly sealed jar. Dry mixtures should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard and wet curry pastes should be stored in the refrigerator.

Although India is not the only country where curry is common, it was Indian traders who provided the inspiration for the curries in other places -- such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, China and the Caribbean islands.

How the curries are put together depends on geography more than anything else, according to Ms. Brennan.

Wet versus dry: In northern India, the curries are dry because the diners use sticky rice or bread to pick up the food. In southern India, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, the curries have more liquid because rice is used to sop up the gravy.

Type of liquid: In northern India and Pakistan, the liquid base of the curry comes from dairy products -- yogurt or milk curds. Coconut milk is a base for southern India and southeast Asia and the Caribbean where dairy products are not commonly used.

Cooking techniques: Many Indian curries are made by frying the onions and garlic first. Then the spices are fried and the meat is sauteed. After the browning, the liquid is added. In southern India and Southeast Asia, the meat may be simmered in the coconut milk and then the spices are added. Spice pastes, made by pounding whole spices, fresh herbs and fish paste, are often used as a thickener in Southeast Asia and southern India.

Fats: Vegetable oil, vegetable shortening or ghee (clarified butter) are used in India and Pakistan. In Southeast Asia and southern India, foods are fried in coconut oil, reduced vegetable cream or vegetable oil.

"There is a curry for just about every person," Ms. Brennan says. "It may be hearty and hot or light on the stomach. Some dishes will be so perfumed that you won't find a hint of that awful taste that people think of as curry powder.

"I suggest that people go to a lot of different ethnic restaurants. Only by experience can you decide what you really like. And you don't have to fear for your palates. You can ask for things mild."

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