I still have the book of handwritten recipes that my friends and family made me when I moved to America from India. It’s funny, because I never cooked Indian food in India. I was interested in baking, but not cooking. I started cooking Indian food only after I moved to Arizona. And I would always call my mother back in India with questions. That’s also when I decided to go to culinary school.
Anjana Shanker, Development Chef
7 Things You Didn’t Know About Curry
- What does it mean? The term “curry” is generally thought to come from the word kari, which means “sauce” in the Tamil language of Southern India. When the British arrived in India, they broadened the term to include all of the spicy dishes from the subcontinent, regardless of style or content. Curry leaves (shown at right) are also linked in their etymology to the word kari. It is thought that they were given the name because they are often found in curries of Southern India.
- A curry a day keeps the doctor away. Curry leaves include antioxidants, which may reduce the risk of cell damage in the human body.
- Curries were born at a crossroads of humanity. Northern curries have had heavy influences from the Mughal Empire (conquerors from the Middle East, who brought with them nuts and dried fruit). When the British came, they found curries to be too spicy; to accommodate the new arrivals, cooks started adding heavy cream to their curries. In the south, Portuguese traders brought tomatoes and chilies with them from the New World, which came to be a staple of curries in those regions. Northern curries are typically made with dried spices and then served with wheat flatbreads, whereas Southern curries typically include fresh herbs and are served with rice.
- Curries are complicated. All curries have seven distinctive elements of taste: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. It is important to achieve the right balance of these flavors.
- Curry keeps. Before refrigeration was common, cooks relied on some of the spices and fermented dairy products in curries to help preserve the food by curtailing the multiplication of harmful bacteria.
- Order of preparation matters. You’ll get different flavors in your curry depending on which ingredients go into the pot first. One approach is to first toast the spices in oil to release the aromatics, and then add the onions, tomatoes, and other ingredients. Alternatively, you can cook the onions first, and then add the spices to the sautéed onions. Each method is worth a try, and you may be surprised at how much they vary in taste.
- Chilies are choosy about their rides. Chili plants may have evolved capsaicin, the compound that gives them their heat, as a way to make sure their seeds are dispersed widely and without damage. The peppers are appealing food for birds, who lack the chemical receptor required to taste capsaicin. They don’t feel the heat, so they can eat chilies with abandon. That’s good for the plant because bird’s beaks and digestive systems tend to keep the seeds intact, which gives the seeds a good chance of germinating when they are, ahem, dropped off. Mammals, on the other hand, tend to crush the seeds while they chew, but they don’t do this often because most find the heat intolerable, with one notable exception: humans!
Tips for Cooking the Mughal Curry Sauce
- Depending on what texture you prefer, you may want to strain your nut pastes or add more water before the final simmer. If you use a Vitamix, you probably won’t have to strain the paste, but you still might want to add extra water for a more milky rather than strictly paste-like consistency.
- If you don’t have the time to soak the nuts and poppy seeds for 12 hours, you can soften them by cooking them in a pressure cooker at a gauge pressure of 1 bar / 15 psi for 45 minutes.
- Use white poppy seeds to keep your curry’s color bright.
- We prefer to toast our spices in the oven, as it allows for more control, but the traditional way is to toast them in a skillet. Either method works.
- You can buy green cardamom in their pods or shelled. If you get them in their pods, you can shell them either before or after you toast your spices.
- Grind your spices in a coffee grinder to create a powder. The texture of the spices can affect the curry’s texture as well as the taste.
- As with all of the curries from MC, we like to serve this one with lamb shanks. We cook the lamb shanks sous vide in a 58 °C / 136 °F bath. You can make the lamb in advance and reheat it at that temperature for one hour before serving.
- As this is a Northern curry, we like to serve it with flatbread. You can make your own parathas, a type of flatbread with puff pastry dough. Roll two layers of the pastry on top of each other, dust with thinly sliced green chilies, and panfry until they are golden and cooked through.
Additional Tips for Cooking Any Curry
- Do all of your prep work in advance, because moving quickly from step to step can be important to the process.
- Most people don’t actually eat the curry leaves. You can even take them out before serving, or just push them to the side of your plate.
- Curry leaves do not freeze well. Some people freeze-dry them, but they lose their potency, so it is best to use them up right away.
- Chilies do freeze well. You can even chop them up while still frozen, allowing you more precision.
- Pastes can also be frozen. Put extra pastes in freezer trays to form ice cubes, and store them in ziplock bags.
- Instead of buying curry powder, mix your own spices. Most curry powders contain coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and red pepper (cayenne). When you mix to your own taste each time you make a curry, store-bought curry powder will taste bland in comparison. Keep your pantry stocked with these staples.
- When you toast aromatics in oil (as described in #6 of the 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Curry list above), keep a lid on your skillet, as seeds will “pop” and release their moisture when they heat up. Let them pop for 10 seconds before taking the skillet off the burner.
- If you can’t find ghee, use cooking oil instead. Some people even prefer using oil because it has less cholesterol. Groundnut, sesame, mustard seed, sunflower, and corn oil are all good options. Using regular butter is not ideal because it turns brown easily.
- Different chilies can be used instead of what the recipe calls for. For example, if you can’t find Thai chilies, use bird’s eye chilies instead.