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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.