Real curry doesn't come from a bottle

Quick Chicken Curry is seen in this Jan. 27, 2008 photo. The busy family's saving grace, the rotisserie roasted chicken, is put to great use in this Quick Chicken Curry. Sitting atop a bed of couscous, a selection of ingredients are combined with the pre-cooked chicken to make a mildly spicy curry dinner.-AP Photo/Larry Crowe

If the only curry you've ever eaten began in a bottle, you've never had curry.

Most Americans wrongly consider curry an all-purpose Indian seasoning, but that sort of curry is a British invention, an attempt to replicate the complexity of Indian food.

Making Garam Masala at home

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.

GARAM MASALA

Start to finish: 5 minutes

Makes 2 tablespoons

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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.)

To Indian chefs, curry simply means "sauce," typically one with spices, liquid ingredients, thickeners such as nut pastes, and souring agents such as tomatoes or tamarind.

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

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

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

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

GETTING STARTED
Start with ingredients familiar to you, or experiment with Indian spice combinations in dishes more familiar to you. 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.

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 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 pre-made ginger or garlic paste, water, broth or tomato sauce is 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.


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