Saturday, July 17, 2010

Demystifying Curry: Curry Basics 101

Much thanks to Ajita M for fact-checking and giving me some information on the origins of the word "curry", as well as providing the title.

For many of us choosing to either limit the amount of meat we eat or eliminate it completely, learning how to make curry is a very easy way of cooking vegetables, especially vegetables the taste of which may not be to our liking since vegetables readily absorb the flavor of the sauce they are simmered in. Once you learn the basics of curry, it is simple to replicate. All you need to know are the components of curry, the spices usually used in curry, and where to get them. At the end of this article, I will also provide a recipe for beet and mushroom curry, since beets are a vegetable that many people find difficult to get a taste for.

What is curry?

The way that I am using the word curry in this article is the way that British meant it when the term was first created by the British, meaning vegetables and/or meat cooked in a sauce made with fried spices that are used in North Indian cooking (South Indian cooking also uses these methods, but when referring to curry, it is the North Indian variety that is usually referred to). The word “curry” can also mean to the powder mix, which I recommend that you not use if you’d like an authentic curry. Curry can also refer to a dry preparation with no sauce but fried spices, such as in aloo gobi, a potato and cauliflower dish, which you will find easy to make after you have the ingredients that are used in Indian cooking.

Vegetables that go into a curry can range from those used in traditional North Indian cooking (potatoes, cauliflower, peas, eggplant) or you can also add whatever vegetables you would like (red peppers are great, as are sweet potatoes and the aforementioned beets).

There are a vast amount of ready-made curry simmer sauces on the market today, some more heathy and flavorful than others. This is the simplest way to make a curry as you usually bring the jarred sauce to a boil, add vegetable and additional water if you need to thin out the sauce, and simmer everything until the vegetables are to your desired tenderness. However, it is simple to make a curry from scratch as well.

What are the components of a curry?

A curry has a few basic parts that you can later play with and rearrange to create a versatile array of different colors and tastes for your curry.

The “Indian trifecta”: Onions, garlic, and ginger usually create the base of the curry. Traditionally, these are blended in a paste, but if you’re in a hurry, chopping these ingredients finely will also do. Onions typically go in first so they have time to fry to a nice brown color. Then, garlic and ginger is added.

Spices: A mixture of spices, called masala, is added to the onion, garlic, and ginger mixture. I will go into spices further down the page. Eventually you will find your own preferred mixture, but a basic mixture of garam masala, turmeric, ground cumin and ground coriander is a good way to start.

A liquid for simmering: This also has its varieties. North Indian cooking usually does not use coconut milk, but this is a great liquid for curries. Tomato sauce is also very good, although I would suggest some tomato paste as well to thicken the sauce. Use as much as needed to nearly cover the vegetables and make sure to stir the onions, garlic, ginger, and spices into the liquid to mix.

What spices do I need to make curry, and where can I get them?

Spices are usually where people gets stuck in terms of making curry. The process can be very overwhelming. However, once you have a well-stocked spice rack, you will find yourself more able to experiment with curry sauce, other Indian dishes, and even other cuisines in general. Here are the spices I recommend as essential:

Garam masala: A mixture of spices, like curry powder but better and more traditionally used. You can make your own at home or you can buy it already made.

Turmeric: A bright yellow spice, one of the benefits of which is containing a property that may prevent Alzheimer’s. Wonderful in any curries with potatoes, or even sprinkled on French fries.

Ground Cumin

Cumin Seeds

Ground Coriander

Cardamom (Whole or in seed form)


Chilies: This is really up to you. Whole cayenne is often used, but it is hard to find. You can easily substitute jalapeno, Serrano, or other chilies to your liking, as well as regulate the amount.

Brown mustard seeds

Many of these spices are easily found at any supermarket, but for those spices, such as the ground coriander, the garam masala, etc, that are not as easily found, the store Deshi Bazaar on White Plains road has a staggering selection of Indian spices to experiment with, as well as ready-made spice mixes, garlic-ginger paste, and sauces.

What is a recipe that I can try right now?

Mushroom and Beet Curry (modified from Madhur Jaffrey’s excellent vegetable recipe compendium, World Vegetarian):

3 tablespoons oil of your choice

½ tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp brown mustard seeds

6 oz mushrooms, cleaned and halved

14 oz beets, peeled and diced

2 tsp grated ginger

1 tsp minced ginger

½ green chile, such as jalapeno, finely chopped

1 cup tomato sauce

salt to taste


Handful of cilantro, chopped

Dollop of plain yogurt

Heat oil over medium-high heat. When hot, put in mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds begin to pop (a few seconds), add the mushrooms. Stir for a few seconds and add the beets. Stir-fry beets for 2 minutes. Add ginger, garlic, and chile. Stir and fry at the same heat, for another two minutes. Add tomato sauce and 1 cup water, as well as salt if needed. Stir to mix and bring to a boil. Cover, lower heat, and simmer for 40 minutes or until beets are soft. To serve, garnish with a dollop of yogurt and sprinkle the chopped cilantro. You can also serve this with brown rice and/or naan, although I also like it with tortillas.

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