Larry Crowe
Potatoes and Spinach in Garlic-Red Chili Sauce

Here's what you need to know to create traditional curries:


Curries can be made with almost any food. Vegetable curries are most popular throughout India, as are curries that use moderate amounts of meat, lamb, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, lentils and other legumes.

Many curries will call for ingredients unfamiliar to many American cooks. These may include tamarind pulp, fresh curry leaves, fenugreek leaves, cinnamon leaves, green mango powder, white poppy seeds, Kashmiri chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, nigella seeds, black cumin and asafetida.

These ingredients usually can be found in Indian, Asian or Middle Eastern markets.


Curry essentials include fresh ginger, garlic, onions, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, paprika, black pepper, red chili powder, fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mustard, fenugreek, bay leaves and garam masala.

Powdered spices are the easiest to use and will suffice for most recipes.

However, Indian cooks prefer whole cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, peppercorns, and whole seeds of cumin, coriander, caraway, fennel, fenugreek and mustard.

This is because whole spices, freshly ground in a coffee grinder or pounded with a mortar and pestle, are incomparably more potent that those purchased already ground.

To intensify the flavor of any spice, whole or ground, lightly toast it in a dry skillet over low heat before using or grinding. This also is a traditional first step in many curry recipes.


Indian cooking cannot be fully separated from the Indian medicine system of ayurveda, which relies heavily on herbs and spices and the desire to keep the body in balance.

Similarly, a properly assembled curry reflects a balance of textures and ingredients, a combination of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent components.

For example, cinnamon sticks lend sweet and astringent properties to a dish, while tomatoes and yogurt act as souring (acid) agents, hot peppers add spice, and fenugreek provides a hint of bitterness.

Getting started

Start with ingredients you are familiar with, suggests Raghavan Iyer, author of the forthcoming cookbook "660 Curries." Try a basic chicken or potato curry.

Or experiment with Indian spice combinations in dishes more familiar to you. For example, add a sprinkle of garam masala to a traditional beef stew and see how it changes the flavor.

Black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, garlic, fresh ginger and turmeric are among the easiest spices to learn. With time and experimentation, many uses and combinations of the spices will become obvious.

"I tend to have some basic rules," says Floyd Cardoz, chef and partner at New York's fusion Indian restaurant Tabla, and author of "One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors."

"If I'm cooking fish, I always use coriander seeds. Vegetables, always cumin seeds. Lamb and goat, cardamom," he says. "With meat, I'd use coriander seed, cumin, black pepper and cardamom."

The process

Most curry dishes follow a general order, starting with the preparation of one or more pastes. For example, fresh ginger or garlic often is pureed with a little water.

Next, the oil is heated in a deep, heavy skillet or pot and the spices are added and are cooked until they sizzle and become aromatic. Once the spices are toasted, the onions usually are added and sauteed.

A bit of liquid, such as the premade ginger or garlic paste, water, broth or tomato sauce, are added, followed by the showcase ingredient (such as fish, meat or more vegetables). This combination then is simmered until cooked.

Before serving, sprinkle the dish with an aromatic spice, such as black pepper or garam masala, or a drizzle of ghee (clarified butter). Pour the curry over rice, noodles, eat as a soup or stew, or serve with Indian-style bread.