This week, I’m going to tackle a pretty big subject: curry. Most of us love it, but we’re also intimidated by it, because it can seem so complicated. But the truth is, curry doesn’t have to be mysterious. When you look at its basic components, you find that it’s really not hard to create your own.
I realize that there are a lot of very complicated curry recipes out there that result in some mind-blowing dishes, but not everyone has that kind of time (or access to all those spices!). So I’m just going to talk about the elements of curry and try to break them down to the point where it might be fun to experiment.
I consulted a dozen or so websites to see what ingredients and methods are essential to a good curry, and which can be saved for ambitious days with lots of time for cooking and plenty of fixings in the pantry or spice rack. I found out that just about everyone considers turmeric, cumin, ginger, onion and garlic the vital flavors in a curry, though The Guardian says that some Brits will leave off the garlic for occasions (like wedding receptions) where people might not want it on their breath (they’re a good authority on curry, as it is practically their national dish).
Other ingredients often found in a curry are chiles; tomatoes; cilantro; lemongrass; and spices such as coriander, fenugreek, mustard, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, paprika, chili powder and cayenne pepper. There are tons of recipes out there that can give you the basic proportions (like this one), or you can try a curry powder mix from the store (just make sure that it is very fresh, as the flavors do fade with time). You also might want to try a garam (hot) masala (mixture of spices), which is a warming combination of flavors rather than a spicy, burn-your-mouth kind of thing. Curry spices are usually added at the beginning of cooking so that their flavors have plenty of time to infuse the dish, but cooks often wait until the end to add powdered garam masala, which adds depth to the those flavors.
You can curry just about anything, from meat, seafood and vegetables to pasta, beans, tofu or leftovers (or soup!). Come up with your own unique flavor combinations, perhaps using a traditional dish to inspire a different variation of spices and flavors: madras has tomatoes and extra chili; tikka masala has additional turmeric, and lemon and dairy; vindaloo ups the chili and adds vinegar; saag features spinach; korma has tomato, nuts and coconut; rogan josh needs plenty of cardamom and chili powder; and so on. Thai curries tend to be hotter and soupier than Indian curries, are often thinned with coconut milk, and have the added flavor of a fish sauce or shrimp paste.
Cooking a curry is pretty straightforward. If you’re using the seeds of spices, they should be roasted first, either in a dry, hot skillet or in ghee or oil. Some cooks start with the seeds and add the oil and powdered spices, then cook onions in the spiced fat. Others start by cooking the onions before they add the curry spices. Either way, once the spiced onions are nicely softened or caramelized, fresh ginger, chiles and garlic are added to the pot and heated through. Then, if tomatoes are part of the plan, they can be stirred in and simmered for a bit.
At this point, you can add whatever it is that you’re currying. If your main ingredient is something that needs cooking, that can be done in the curry. Lamb or other meats might need a long, slow cook (maybe all day in a crockpot), but some ingredients (vegetables or sliced chicken, for example) can be simmered in the curry on the stovetop. Leftovers and precooked or frozen foods need just to be warmed up. In any case, you might need to add some stock, water or other liquid to keep things from drying out.
Once everything is cooked through, you could add a sauce or sprinkle on a bit more of the spices, and then it’s time to taste and season. It’s a good idea to wait until the end to add salt, since there are ingredients (such as fish sauce) that can add quite a bit of saltiness, so you may not want more. Often, curries call for adding garnishes like cilantro (called coriander leaves in British recipes), parsley, flaked almonds or lemon slices. It’s a nice flourish but entirely optional, as is serving it on a bed of rice or other grain.
Especially on these cold winter days, curry makes a wonderful comfort food, and it is extra-warming when you make it yourself at home. Have fun experimenting!
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.