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The Fascinating World of Curry

From piquant Thai curry soups to smoky Moroccan stews and Indian kabobs, curries span the globe. "I've been currying along for years," says Jeff Davidson, kitchen manager at Medford's Grilla Bites, where he regularly serves Thai carrot curry soup. "It's widely used and it goes with everything," he says. He's even had success with curry ice cream. From sassy or subtle, there's a curry for every palate.

The word curry comes from the Tamil (South Indian) word kari, meaning sauce. With their distinctive scent, color, and flavor, curries are vegetable (or meat) stews, accompanied by rice. Commonly these sauces include: cardamom, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry leaves (from the curry plant, Helichrysum augustifolium in the west or the common Indian curry tree Chalcas koenigii) ginger, garlic, nutmeg, tamarind and coconut.

Most cultures have adapted curries to their environments in some way. In some of these countries, access to refrigeration, cooking heat, and fresh tasty protein, can be limited. In the Caribbean for example, where curried goat is popular, quick-cooking sauces are necessary. But for us, they're building blocks for ethnic meals. Charles Tobey, new owner of Alex's Restaurant in Ashland appreciates curry's versatility. "I try to use it in ways that people don't think of. It's great with root vegetables in winter, tomatoes and peas in summer, as well as beef, chicken and fruit," he says.

The nationality of your meal, as well as personal taste, dictates the best type of curry for the occasion. With a hefty helping of hot chilies, Asian curry pastes are spicy. In Thai cuisine, color describes the curries. Red chilies create red curry, green chilies make hot green curry and yellow curries, colored by the cumin and turmeric, are most like Indian curries. Thai curries, pungent with Kaffir lime leaves, galangal (Siamese ginger), lemon grass, and turmeric, are highly flavorful and aromatic.

Dried curry powders don't capture the complex flavors. "Use a paste and fry it off first," Davidson says. This releases the oils and heightens the flavors. Medford's Asia Grocery Market carries a nice selection of Mae Ploy brand curry pastes.

In Indian cuisine, where most of us are most familiar with curry, there are many different types and no, not all curries blow your head off! Listed from tame to ferocious, here are the most common kinds you'll run across:

Korma - mild yellow curry;

Rogan Josh - medium;

Bhuna - moderately hot and thick;

Dhansak - medium-hot, often served with lentils;

Madras - hot red curry with chili powder;

Pathia - like Madras but with lemon juice;

Vindaloo - restaurant hot curry;

Phaal - fiery hot.

"Fruit works with curry really well," Tobey says. Give your chicken or fruit salad a taste of the tropics by adding some curry and pineapple, or try a curried baked apple. Core an apple and fill the hole with butter, curry paste and brown sugar and cook.

Although it matches with a cornucopia of foods, most chefs like to pair it with soups and seafood. "One of the best things with curry are roasted vegetable soups. Ginger carrot, curried parsnip or butternut squash soups are great," says Tobey. He roasts the veggies with curry then adds some apple cider. "Curry gives foods a little different flavor. It's good. It's different," he says.

So the next time you're cooking dinner and wondering how to spice up that same old recipe, try a little - or a lot - of curry in it. Enjoy!

The Fascinating World of Curry