Culinary focus in the United States has had a definite Euro-centric slant.  In recent years Asian cuisines have become more popular and mainstream. But one Asian flavor is still largely misunderstood in America. Curry.  The fluorescent yellow curries of the past made from jar curry powder are about as authentic as Ragu is to a true Italian spaghetti sauce. These have thankfully made way for Thai, Vietnamese and true Indian curries.  Indian curries vary widely from region to region. Spice powders are often used, but the spices are most often roasted and ground together according to family recipes. The aforementioned neon yellow curry is Madras Curry and was developed to be shipped back to England for the curry addicted colonial masters.

Here is a simplified Indian Curry Primer which illustrates the major difference in Eastern and Western culinary traditions. Most Indian Cuisine is influenced by the Hindu philosophy of Ayurveda derived from the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning span of life and veda, meaning knowledge. This philosophy recognizes that different substances affect the body and mind in different ways. Combining the same ingredients in different proportions will have separate effects on the mind and body (I wonder what the effects of Twinkies and McDonald’s French fries have on the mind and body.)

This philosophy is shared with two southeastern Asian countries that also are known for curries –Thailand and Vietnam.

Ayurveda characterizes food and drugs three ways: by taste; potency; and function. The basic tastes are: sweet, sour, salty pungent, bitter, and astringent. Potency is defined as the action the spice has on the body. An example of function would be the fact that figs and dates are both sweet, but figs have a purgative property.

The most important step in making curries is in choosing the fat oil in which to fry the spices. This is called ghee otherwise known as clarified butter. The base, if non-vegetarian, is always stock usually made while simmering the meat or meat on bone in the curry.

The second base, or thickening agent, could consist of onions, nuts or coconut milk. Flour is not used for thickening in Indian cooking since it does not contribute to flavor.

To complicate matters even more, the same ingredient may function differently in various recipes. For example, onions lightly fried or pureed will thicken, but if browned may function more for taste and color.

The most complex part is in adding the spices which is dependant on which spices you choose; the sequence in which they are added; whether they are fried or boiled, and for how long. Other components include souring agent (like lime, green mango yogurt and tomato,) and the coloring agents (tumeric, saffron, red tomato and garam masala – if fried for 1 minute in hot oil.) Spices also have two other roles: taste and aroma. This part confused me at first since all spices have tastes and aroma. But understanding how some are more dominant in one area than another teaches you how to customize your curry.

Don’t be caught in a curry conundrum. Play with the spices and see how the end result changes. The true joy of cooking curries comes from a highly personal expression through food. This month curry favor with your guest by cooking the Indian Vindaloo or the Thai inspired curries.  Enhance them with Rote bread, cucumber raita and green chutney. Until next month, Bon Appétit!

Lamb Curry Vindaloo
¼ Cup red curry
1 Teaspoon cumin seeds
6 Cloves
1 Cinnamon stick
10 Peppercorns
½ Star anise
1 Teaspoon poppy seeds
2 Tablespoon chopped ginger
6 Cloves garlic
1 Tablespoon tamarind
4 Teaspoon cider vinegar
1/3 Cup oil
3 Onions chopped
1½ Pounds lamb stew meat
½ Teaspoon palm sugar

Grind all spices with vinegar. Rub meat with ¼ of prepared spice mix. Marinate 15 minutes. Heat oil in pan. Sauté onions 15 minutes until brown. Add remaining spice paste. Cook five minutes (add water if necessary). Add lamb. Cook 5 minutes. Add 4 cups water, salt and palm sugar. Cook over low heat until tender.

Masoor Dal Red Lentils
2 Cups red lentils
10 Cloves garlic
1 Medium onion, diced
3 Tomatoes, chopped
1 Tablespoons ginger, chopped
3 Green chiles, chopped
1 Teaspoon ground coriander
½ Teaspoon cumin ground
1 Teaspoon red chile powder
2 Teaspoon lime juice
1 Teaspoon butter

Wash lentils. Soak 30 minutes.

Cook lentils in 7 cups boiling water. Bring back to boil. Add salt and all ingredients, but oil and two cloves garlic. Cook for 30 minutes. Add lime juice. Mash until smooth. Fry garlic in oil 1 minute, add to Dal. Serve.

Cucumber Raita
1 Cup yogurt
1 Cup cucumber, peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper
Dash cumin
½ Teaspoon sugar
Dash paprika
1 Teaspoon cilantro, chopped

Mix all ingredients. Chill.

Tomato Raita
1 Cup yogurt
1 Tomato, chopped
2 Tablespoons minced onion
Salt, pepper, cumin

Mix garnish with cilantro

Green Chutney
1 Cup mint leaves
1 Cup cilantro leaves
2 Jalapeños
1 Onion chopped
Cumin, salt, pepper
½ Teaspoon sugar
2 Teaspoons lime juice

Puree all ingredients, except lime juice. Add juice. Mix well. Cover refrigerate lasts 2 days

2 Cups cream of wheat
2/3 Cup warm water
4 Teaspoons oil

Mix cream of wheat and water to form dough. Add oil. Knead 5-8 minutes. Rest one hour. Break into 12 pieces. Roll on floured bowl.  Cook on flat griddle. Cook turning twice. Press with spoon if necessary.

Green Thai Curry
4 Chicken breasts, sliced
2 Cups coconut milk
1 Onion cut in squares
1 Red pepper cut in squares
1 Green pepper cut in squares
2 Tablespoons green curry paste
4 Tablespoons fish paste
2 Tablespoons chopped basil
1 Tablespoon palm sugar
Lime zest

In small amount oil fry curry paste 3 minutes. Add vegetables. Cook one minute. Add coconut milk. Bring to boil. Simmer. Add chicken. Simmer until done. Adjust seasoning.

 Shrimp Lemon Grass Curry
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
2 Cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 Stalks lemon grass, peeled, cut into pieces
2 Red peppers, julienned
4 Tablespoons yellow curry paste
3 Tablespoons fish sauce
4 Tablespoons yellow curry paste
2 Cups coconut milk
1½ Pounds shrimp
½ Cup basil
½ Cup cilantro

Heat peanut oil. Add garlic and lemongrass. Sauté until golden. Add pepper. Sauté one minute. Add curry paste. Sauté one minute. Add fish sauce. Add coconut milk. Simmer five minutes. Add shrimp. Cook until done. Toss with cilantro and basil.

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