Currying flavor worldwide with spicy blends of India

September 07, 1994|By Cara De Silva | Cara De Silva,Newsday

Yellow juices stain the man's hands as he bites into the fragrant roti. Curried chicken in an envelope of flat bread, it is a favorite food of home -- Trinidad.

Crusty and plump, the curry doughnuts sell out in minutes -- to Japanese.

A smear of curry butter, a pyramid of tiny shrimp, the perfect "smorrebrod" sandwich -- in Denmark.

Enticing, sensuous and aromatic, curry -- both the range of spice mixtures and the range of dishes flavored with such spice mixtures -- has left India and almost circled the globe.

It exists in all of Southeast Asia, France (in preparations called "L'Indienne"), Britain and its thousands of curry houses (Indian restaurants), Mauritius (try the bat curry), New Guinea, Africa (hot!), Sri Lanka (hotter), China and Australia. "Curry even appears in Italy," said Nino Settepani of New York's Caffe Bondi, a restaurant specializing in historical dinners, "and it is mentioned in a manuscript that records the cooking of the nobility in 19th-century Naples." (But, says Indian food authority Julie Sahni one of Julius Caesar's chefs was from India.)

We Americans have long had curry, too, as part of a tearoom meal for the ladies who lunch, a piquant accent in egg salad, or a dinner at an Indian restaurant. But we were narrow in our understanding. And many of us thought curry was a single spice or even a single sauce.

But no longer. The burgeoning of ethnic restaurants has given us the opportunity to explore new flavors and also old flavors with new understanding. Whether Indian or Thai, Vietnamese or Burmese, these largely informal eateries are replacing the neighborhood Italian restaurants and Jewish delis of yesterday, said Fred Sampson, president of the New York State Restaurant Association. And because they all serve curries, as does a growing crop of West Indian restaurants, we are being exposed to more varieties of this dish than ever before.

According to Ms. Sahni, who is writing a book on curries throughout the world, it all began in South India thousands of years ago. It was there, she said, that the ancestor of all the seasoning mixtures we now call curry was created. Composed of peppercorns, curry (or "kari") leaves (an element in many Indian dishes) and "urad dal" (a kind of bean), it was a tasty but simple mixture.

In time, curries became more complex and varied. When traders -- Arab, Dutch, Hindu -- brought spices from other countries, they became part of the mix, too.

Among the transplants, said Madhur Jaffrey, whose book "A Taste of the Far East" just won the James Beard award for cookbook of the year, were nutmeg, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and fenugreek (the seed that provides the taste typical of commercial curry powders). Chili peppers arrived from the Americas in the early 16th century, brought by the Portuguese.

But curries were also spread to other countries through war, merchants, clerics and travelers who went home carrying seeds in their pockets. Adding local ingredients, the dishes were reformulated.

Despite its ubiquitousness and popularity, curry also is one of the most misunderstood and misdescribed of food preparations.

Take the word itself. According to Ms. Sahni, it comes either from the kari leaf or from the stir-frying technique called "kurrutu" or from "karihai," the South Indian word for produce. "To cook karihai you use 'karipodi' [curry powder] and the dish that is made is called 'kari' [curry]," she explained. But others argue for different derivations, said Dave DeWitt, author with Arthur Pais of "A World of Curries" (Little Brown, $16.95), such as "khari," a buttermilk and chick-pea flour soup.

This Trinidadian curry comes from "A World of Curries" by Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Pais.

Curried Chicken and Roti

Makes 4 servings

3 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup water

1/4 cup vegetable oil plus more for greasing pan

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/4 fresh habanero chili or 1/2 red jalapeno

1 chicken, cut up

6 tablespoons curry powder

4 cups water

To make roti: Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Add 1 cup water and mix. Knead dough 10 minutes. Let rest 30 minutes. Knead again 10 minutes. Divide into 4 balls. Roll each ball on floured surface to 8 to 10 inches in diameter.

Oil skillet and heat. Fry each roti about 90 seconds a side, brushing skillet with a little more oil as you flip. Drain roti on paper towels.

Heat oil in large skillet and saute onion, garlic and chili. Add chicken. Brown. Add curry powder. Cook 3 minutes, stirring. Add 4 cups water, stir and cover. Cook over low heat till chicken is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove cover for last 15 minutes so sauce will thicken. Remove chicken. Cut meat off bones. Continue to cook sauce till thick. Return meat to sauce and heat through. Fold curried chicken into roti. Serve warm.

This is a knock-your-socks off African curry. Look for peri-Peri at stores selling South American foods.

Julie Sahni's Mozambique Shrimp Peri-Peri

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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