"No self-respecting Indian has a curry spice blend in their kitchen," says Raghavan Iyer, author of the forthcoming cookbook "660 Curries."
If they did, all Indian food would taste the same, which as the title of Iyer's book indicates, it doesn't.
To Indian chefs, curry simply means "sauce," typically one with spices sometimes many of them liquid ingredients, thickeners such as nut pastes, and souring agents, such as tomatoes or tamarind.
These sauces then are married with meat, vegetables and seafood. The combination of spices varies widely by dish and the region of India from which the dish originates. And generally, the spices are blended fresh for each meal.
India is a large, diverse country. Recipes change as dramatically by region as they do in Europe, depending on the local harvest, climate, season, religion and whim of the cook.
"We are really magicians of spices," says Madhur Jaffrey, author of many Indian cookbooks, including "Madhur Jaffrey's Quick & Easy Indian Cooking."
"We know the properties of each spice, and the way we blend them brings out different aspects of the spice," she says.
Northern India serves up America's more widely recognized "Indian food." These dishes rely on ginger, garlic, cardamom, cinnamon, cilantro, mint, garam masala (itself a spice blend), yogurt and cream.
Northern Indian dishes tend to have rich, creamy sauces with a complex blend of spices, sometimes more than 90 of them. Southern and coastal commu-
nities, on the other hand, rely more on fresh ingredients, including curry leaves, coconut, fish and shellfish, and simpler spice blends.
But don't let the complexity intimidate you. Many delicious curries are easy to create.
Before embarking on your curry journey, take stock of your spice pantry. And don't bother with that prepared curry blend. Blending your own mix of whole spices will reward you with honest and delicious Indian food.
The spice blend garam masala often is added to Indian curries just before serving. It is enjoyed for its warming, sweet and aromatic properties. It is readily available at most grocers, but homemade is easy and much better. Each region has its own version, but this basic masala from Camellia Panjabi, author of "50 Great Curries of India," will work in most recipes.
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes: 2 tablespoons
1 whole cardamom pod
1 dried bay leaf
2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon fennel powder
In a clean coffee mill or mortar and pestle, grind together the cardamom and bay leaf until finely ground. Add the cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and fennel powder.
(Note: Some people prefer to dedicate a coffee mill to spice grinding to avoid the possibility of lingering aromas.)
POTATOES AND SPINACH IN GARLIC-RED CHILI SAUCE
One simple chili can offer many different levels of heat. Use it whole and unbroken for a wispy level of heat. Roast it to blacken the skin for a more pungent heat. Coarsely chop it, then blacken it for sweat-inducing heat.
The high-heat version heats this curry, but the potatoes tone it down for balance. If new potatoes are not in season, use white or yellow-skin potatoes and cut them into 1 1/2- to 2-inch chunks. The cooking time should be the same.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 dried red Thai or cayenne chilies, stems removed, coarsely chopped (do not remove the seeds)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup water
1 pound new potatoes, scrubbed and halved
1 large tomato, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 tablespoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
8 ounces fresh spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
In a medium saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they turn reddish brown and smell nutty, 5 to 10 seconds.
Immediately add the garlic and chilies. Saute until the garlic is lightly browned and the chilies blacken, about 1 minute.
Sprinkle in the turmeric, then carefully pour in the water. Stir to deglaze the pan, releasing any browned bits of garlic.
Add the potatoes, tomato, cilantro, brown sugar and salt. Stir once or twice, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are fall-apart tender, 20 to 25 minutes.Add the spinach, a couple of handfuls at a time, stirring until wilted, 2 to 4 minutes per batch. Recipe from Raghavan Iyer's "660 Curries," Workman Publishing, 2008
QUICK CHICKEN KORMA
When trying to cook fast, it helps to have all the prepared ingredients and the right tools on hand. Here, a blender to make the ginger-garlic paste and a skillet wide enough to hold all the chicken in a single layer will be of great help.
This dish can be made a day ahead, covered and refrigerated. It reheats well.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
5 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons water, divided
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 bay leaves
2-inch stick cinnamon
8 cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon whole black or regular cumin seeds
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground coriander seed
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 canned plum tomatoes, chopped
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken pieces, cut into small chunks
1/4 to 1 teaspoon cayenne
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons heavy cream
In a blender, puree the ginger, garlic and 3 tablespoons water until they form a smooth paste.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over high. When the oil is very hot, add the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves and whole cumin seeds. Stir, then add the onion. Saute 3 minutes, or until the onion browns.
Transfer the paste from the blender to the skillet. Add the ground coriander and ground cumin, then saute for a minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and saute another minute.
Add the chicken, cayenne, salt and remaining 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil.
Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 15 minutes, occasionally turning the chicken pieces.Remove the cover, add the cream, and cook on high, stirring occasionally, another 7 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Use a slotted spoon to remove and discard the cardamom pods, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and cloves. Serve over rice. Recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's "Madhur Jaffrey's Quick & Easy Indian Cooking," Chronicle Books, 2007
This simple dish from Kerala on the southern coast of India features the regional staples of coconut, seafood and fresh curry leaves. Curry leaves resemble bay leaves and can be found at Indian food markets. If they're not available, use a handful of fresh cilantro leaves. The flavor's not the same, but the herbal freshness is similar.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1/4 cup coconut oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 1/2 cup chopped red onion
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 or 2 serrano chilies, split lengthwise and seeds removed (leave in some seeds for a spicier sauce)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup diced tomato
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds cod or haddock fillets, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup fish stock, clam juice or water
10 to 12 fresh curry leaves (or a handful of fresh cilantro leaves)
6 lime wedges
In a large, deep skillet, warm the coconut oil over medium heat. When the oil is fragrant, stir in the mustard seeds.
When the mustard seeds begin to crackle and pop, stir in the onion. Once the onion has become limp, after about 2 minutes, stir in the garlic, ginger, chilies, turmeric, salt, pepper and half of the diced tomato.
Saute, stirring frequently, until the tomato has softened and begun to break down, about 5 minutes.
Push the onion mixture to the side of the skillet and add the fish in a single layer. With a spatula, scrape up enough of the onion mixture to smear over the tops of the pieces of fish.
Pour the coconut milk and fish stock or water around and over the fish. Scatter the curry leaves or cilantro over everything. Cover and simmer 3 minutes.
Uncover and give the skillet a swirl, rather than stirring the mixture, which could break up the fish. Cook a few minutes more, uncovered, if needed to cook the fish through. The sauce will be fairly thin.
Spoon into shallow bowls, garnish with the remaining tomato and lime wedges, and serve. Recipe from Cheryl and Bill Jamison's "Around the World in 80 Dinners," William Morrow, 2008
CURRIED SHRIMP WITH SUGAR SNAP PEAS
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 pound fresh sugar snap peas or snow peas
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 14-ounce can light coconut milk
2 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 green onions, chopped
Add shrimp and sugar snap peas; sprinkle with curry powder and garlic salt. Cook and stir 5 minutes or until shrimp begin to turn pink.
Stir coconut milk, wine and lime juice into cornstarch until smooth. Add to shrimp mixture. Stirring constantly, bring to boil on medium heat and simmer 2 minutes.
Sprinkle with green onions. Serve over rice, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
Note: To add more heat, use hot Madras or red curry powder.
Nutritional information per serving: About 171 Calories, 7 grams fat, 19 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrate, 171 mg. cholesterol, 564 mg. sodium, 1 gram fiber. McCormick