Saturday, May 27, 2023

Saturday Snippet: Currying favor


I'm a curry fan.  South Africa had (and still has) a large Indian population, the result of laborers being sent to that country from India in the late 19th century to work on farms and transport projects.  (Mahatma Gandhi spent more than two decades in South Africa, and began his work as a lawyer and activist there.)  The Indian population brought its curries with them, and in South Africa they mingled with Malayan curries brought by earlier generations of slave laborers.  The result is a rich blend of flavors, savors and textures that remain favorites with many South Africans.  (Those of you who know that heritage will doubtless salivate at the thought of Malayan-inspired bobotie, the bread-based bunny chow and other well-known dishes.)

I've been known to cook curries myself, although mine tend to be a bit too spicy for American palates.  (Soon after we married, I managed to reduce my wife and our housemate to tears and copious perspiration with what I regarded as a medium sort of curry.  They were not impressed!)  On the other hand, it all depends on the kind of "heat" one is used to with one's food.  A healthy Texas chili can reduce me to spluttering incoherence as I gasp for air.  (I'm sure many readers are familiar with the well-known, albeit [hopefully] apocryphal story of the Texas chili competition.)

Be that as it may, I like curry.  I was therefore delighted to come across a book titled "660 Curries:  The Gateway to Indian Cooking".

It's perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of curries around the world that I've ever read.  I plan on picking recipes from it at random now and again, and inflicting them on encouraging my wife and our friends to try them.  I'll let you know how that works out!

Because many Americans don't understand the background to curries and how they developed, I thought it might be fun and educational to quote the book on how they came about.

What is a Curry?

Before I try to define that word, let me create an image for you from my college days in India, when I was pursuing a degree in chemistry. As I busied myself in the laboratory, I happened to knock a mercury thermometer onto the tile floor. Tiny pieces of glass and droplets of liquid mercury dispersed, and I tried to pick up the pieces. The glass was easy, but not the mercury. The shining, silvery liquid was elusive (not to mention dangerous) and defied containment and form (we had no mercury spill kits back then). It moved freely with even the slightest nudge and affected everything it touched. Which brings me back to the task at hand: Defining curry is like trying to grasp liquid mercury and gather it into a neat pile.

The word “curry” itself is unknown in the Indian vocabulary. It doesn’t appear in any of India’s twenty-three officially recognized languages and sixteen hundred dialects. Words like kari and kadhi refer to sauce-based or gravy-laden dishes that existed in India well before the Aryans got there—and with a civilization that spans six thousand years, you can well imagine their longevity. James Trager, in his book The Enriched, Fortified, Concentrated, Country-Fresh, Lip-Smacking, Finger-Licking, International, Unexpurgated Foodbook (and I thought I was the hyphen king), mentions the seasoning habits of the Mohenjo-Daro people who lived in the Indus Valley c. 4000 B.C. They used mortars and pestles to pound the sun-dried “seeds of mustard, fennel, and most especially cumin and the rinds of tamarind pods” to create the “earliest curry powder” (the use of the term “curry powder” here applies modern terminology to an ancient, but very real, spice blend). Kari, a Tamil (southern Indian) word that was widely in use by 1500 B.C., according to the renowned Indian food historian K. T. Achaya, meant animal meat stewed with “wet dressings” and spiced with black pepper. From where I sit, I see the transformation of kari to curry as the possible result of mispronounced happenstance.

Perhaps, as some believe, it was King Richard II’s palace cooks who invented the word “curry” in Britain around A.D. 1390, as they built layers of flavors and textures with sophisticated spicing techniques that involved cloves, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, cumin, and cardamom, among others. Some of these recipes are well documented in the book The Forme of Cury (published in the late fourteenth century). Since there is no evidence that they knew either the word kari or kadhi in the 1300s, how then did the English know to bastardize those terms to “cury”? Well, the British were involved in the spice trade before they set up shop in India in the early 1600s. I can only speculate that they picked up one of the Indian words and adapted it to “cury.” After all, it was the British who tried to capture the flavors of a kari years later with a generic blend of ground spices called “curry powder.”

In spite of this theory—and a raft of others—concerning the origination of the word “curry,” there is an agreement that the concept of this sauce-based, spice-laden dish has been India’s legacy for thousands of years. Spices, you see, are the backbone of these dishes, and with India’s six-thousand-year tradition of using them in cooking, I consider the Indian subcontinent to be their master. Indians toasted, roasted, pounded, and mixed their spices to provide complex flavors to the sauces that bathed, swathed, steeped, stewed, and simmered meats, vegetables, and legumes well before the Europeans did.

So, what is a curry? In England and the rest of the world, “curry” describes anything Indian that is mottled with hot spices, with or without a sauce, and “curry powder” is the blend that delivers it. In keeping with my culture, I define a curry as any dish that consists of meat, fish, poultry, legumes, vegetables, or fruits, simmered in or covered with a sauce, gravy, or other liquid that is redolent of spices and/or herbs. In my India, curry is never added—it just is! In order to share this with you, I have focused on recipes that are accessible to the home cook. To help navigate, you’ll find comprehensive ingredient glossaries, cooking tips, clearly explained cooking terms, and appealing yet simple spicing techniques. Welcome to a saucy repertoire and a world beyond curry powders.

The Elements of a Curry

“Flavor” is a complex word—although maybe not quite as multifaceted as “curry.” It seems so very simple to us when we use it to describe what we eat and drink, interchangeably with “taste.”

Wikipedia describes “flavor” as “the sensory impression of a food or other substance, determined by the three chemical senses of taste, olfaction (smell), and the so-called trigeminal senses (a merging of the ophthalmic, maxillary, and mandibular nerves), which detect chemical irritants in the mouth and throat.” You weed through all that scientific talk and end up at the old adage “You eat with all your senses.”

When I create curries in my kitchen I look for that perfect balance of sizzle, taste, smell, texture, and visual appeal. My workspace becomes an aromatic laboratory as measuring cups judiciously dole out onions, garlic, and ginger, spoons sprinkle salt, turmeric, and spices, cooking gadgets mince and puree, and pots and pans hold frying or stewing vegetables, legumes, and meats.

In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson defines “flavor” as the combined effects of taste and aroma. Using that as my guide, I decided to analyze the composition of an Indian curry by examining its taste and aromatic components. I also broke down the elements that give it form, texture, and body. My reason for doing this is a simple one: I wish to share with you all my available tools in order to empower you to create and shape your own curries. So come along; we have much to do.

When you spoon a curry into your mouth, your taste buds identify its ingredients as being bitter, sour, salty, and sweet (the four primary taste elements). More recently, scientists consider umami (a Japanese term) to be the fifth primary element. Speak to Asians and you will find that they consider the additional elements of pungent (hot) and astringent to be equally significant.

There are ten thousand taste buds in your tongue that recognize the primary taste elements. It is true that there are specific parts of the mouth that taste one element more so than any other, but it’s not all that cut-and-dried, as those taste centers (and their sensitivities) change with age. Children are very responsive to pungent chiles and bitter greens, but those same areas have diminished capacity when those babies and toddlers enter their second childhood phase, more commonly known as the senior years. Taste does not work in isolation, as temperature and aroma play pivotal roles in how you experience flavor.

Bitter In general, and I know that generalizing is risky, Americans and Western Europeans find the bitter taste to be very unpleasant. But the same taste is manna to the palates of Southeast Asians and folks from the Indian subcontinent. The Bengali-speaking community, in addition to others from eastern India, usually starts a meal with bitter-tasting curries or perhaps slices of bitter melon, salted and pan-fried. Other regions mask the bitterness so it plays a supporting role in balance with the other taste elements. Spices, herbs, and other ingredients that infuse bitterness in our curries include fenugreek, mustard, amaranth, turnip, and bitter melon, among many others.

Sour Many of us love sour tastes, even though their lips-puckering quality provides slight discomfort. My eight-year-old son, Robert, constantly begs for a piece of lime to suck on, as he draws pleasure not only from its tartness but also from my reaction. The acidic component in Indian curries is a strong one, and each region has its favorite. Tamarind sours its way into the coastal areas along the south, west, and east, while kokum and kudampuli provide smoked acidity in a few communities along the Konkan coast on the west. The Sri Lankans, just south of India, steep kudampuli (they call it goraka), while the Goan Christians use palm, cashew, malt, and distilled vinegars in their Portuguese-influenced fare. Tomato, a late arrival on the scene (late eighteenth century A.D.), spread instant acidic joy, saucing its way into every region. Yogurt and buttermilk blanket all of India, while limes, unripe mangoes, and pineapple give sour comfort to some northern, northwestern, and southern communities. Gongura leaves are a favorite in south central India, not because of their close relationship to the marijuana plant, but because the tart-tasting leaves impart valuable nutrients to curries and provide acidic balance to hot chiles.

Salty In many ways, I consider this the most significant taste element. Salt is the catalyst that lets you taste everything else (when recipes say “Salt to taste,” this is what they mean). Of course you can oversalt something, and that can be a downer (but definitely an upper when it comes to your blood pressure)—which makes me want to get back on that soapbox of mine, preaching the virtues of balance in the world of Indian curries. Two main ingredients in Indian curries bring forth the salty taste: salt and black salt.

Sweet In the world of Indian curries, ingredients that infuse sweetness in a sauce tone down its bitter and hot tastes. This is especially true in curries from the eastern regions, where folks love bitter things. Each region has its sweetener of choice, some more complex-tasting than others.

A multitude of ingredients sweeten our curries. Jaggery, white granulated sugar, and both dried and fresh fruits sweeten the pot, while spices like fennel, nutmeg, and mace start by sweetly tempering the oil.

White granulated sugar imparts a one-dimensional sweetness to curries, and that’s fine when you want a nonassertive sweetness to sit on the sidelines while bolder flavors bask in the limelight. Jaggery, which also comes from sugarcane but more closely resembles brown sugar, imparts a more complex flavor.

Umami To define umami, a Japanese term, I resort to describing its coating effect, its succulence that drapes the tongue. Glutamate (also known as free glutamate), an essential amino acid, is the reason for umami. Its best-known form is deeply entrenched in the foods of China, in the additive known as MSG (monosodium glutamate). In Indo-Chinese fare, MSG (known as ajinomoto in India) is sprinkled on every curry. Knowing that many are allergic to this flavor enhancer, I have chosen to exclude it in my Indo-Chinese curries. If you like, you can throw it in (instead of the salt) in those recipes. Free glutamate is found in aged cheeses, meats, fish and shellfish, mushrooms, dairy products, nuts, legumes, and tomatoes. With the exception of aged cheeses, all these foods play a gargantuan role in Indian curries, asserting their protein-rich presence and contributing umami.

Beef, lamb, pork, fish, shellfish, chicken, duck, and quail are some of the proteinaceous products in curries. The succulence that they supply is a big factor in the curry’s flavor. Each protein source tastes different, and you can take the same sauce and simmer a different meat (or even a different cut of the same meat) in it to experience a completely new taste sensation.

Mushrooms are a meat analogue, in terms of texture and chewiness. No wonder many vegetarian curries use them for that satiating trait. The recipe for Cheese-Stuffed Mushroom Caps with a Creamy Onion Sauce (see recipe) shows a contemporary way of using traditional ingredients, while Mushrooms and Peas in a Fenugreek-Cream Sauce (see recipe), a northern Indian classic, demonstrates mushroom’s role as the meat stand-in.

The free glutamate in whole milk, yogurt, cream, and clarified butter fulfills the umami experience. Dough-soft milk solids (Khoya) are silky, rich, and smooth. This protein-rich medium is lower in fat than cream, and when pureed with yogurt and simmered as a sauce, it acts as a stabilizer, preventing the yogurt from curdling, as it is apt to do. At times cream and half-and-half act as heat diffusers in a curry, wrapping around the sauce to tone it down. When you employ ghee (a special form of clarified butter) as a cooking medium to sear and stir-fry ingredients, it yields a mild taste. But fold the ghee in just before you serve the curry, and it drapes a buttery, fatty coating on your tongue. You don’t need a lot—even a tablespoon or two is enough to provide succulence.

We tend to overlook the importance of nuts as proteinaceous, umami-satisfying ingredients in the world of curries. Cashews, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, and peanuts (which are actually a member of the legume family but are placed in this category for their nutty trait—crazy, isn’t it?) are tapped for their hearty taste, nutty aroma, and sauce-thickening qualities.

Pistachios and almonds are imported from the Mediterranean countries, and they are used sparingly in curries in India because of their cost.

Poppy seeds and sesame seeds both have a nutlike quality that contributes to umami.

In a country that boasts of over sixty kinds of lentils, beans, and peas, legumes provide valuable protein, infusing curries with the creamy, satiating quality so essential for that umami experience. When certain legumes are toasted and roasted, then blended with spices to create signature blends like Sambhar masala, you realize how that is possible.

Pungent (hot) This very Asian taste element is a key one in my world of curries, and it is one that instills fear (and dislike), especially among those who wince at the mention of curry. Don’t worry, the pungency is balanced out by the presence of other ingredients that diminish its presence. Black peppercorns, chiles, ginger, and cloves all breathe fire, but they all have different hot points in your mouth. Peppercorns are throat-hot, chiles cover the lips and sides of the tongue, ginger has that nose-tingling thing going, while cloves exude numbing heat.

Astringent This particular group of ingredients is in your face, hard-hitting, and pushy. They are not a primary taste element, but their presence in a curry is definitely noticeable. They are always used in minute amounts, since a little goes a long way. When you look at words like “harsh,” “severe,” “caustic,” and “acerbic,” used to describe the taste of astringency, ingredients like asafetida, turmeric, teflam seeds, and baking powder come to mind. Don’t shy away from sprinkling these ingredients into sauces and spice blends, as they are essential flavor-building elements.

Aromatic The sense of smell is a powerful force, and aromas leave imprints in your memory bank that last for a lifetime (the smell of honey elicits a bitter taste memory for me because I was given crushed pills swirled in honey during a childhood illness). Smell helps us analyze taste. If we have a cold and can’t smell, it affects our taste, since we can truly “taste,” in the technical sense, only a few things. Smell helps the taste buds “taste” hundreds of ingredients, and this group of aromatic spices and herbs breathe life into our curries. When you enter a kitchen where the aroma of spices hangs in the air, it sets off a tasty anticipation of what’s to come.

Among India’s favorite aromatic herbs are bay leaves, cilantro, curry leaves, dill, fenugreek, and mint. In the world of spices, these rule the roost: cardamom, cumin, coriander seed, and cinnamon. I call them the high C’s, as their presence is felt all over India in thousands of dishes. Another spice, ajowan, or bishop’s weed, drapes curries with an aromatic heat, and I include it with this group. And let’s not forget the sensuous “s” (or maybe it should be $) spice that colors a perfumed trail—saffron.

Oils, liquids, thickeners, and stabilizers When I think about curry as a structure, I look at these ingredients as its essential building blocks (its infrastructure) while the spices, herbs, and other flavorings are what make the house a home. You can’t have one without the other.

The dribbling of oil into a pan usually is the start of a curry buildup. Sometimes the oil is insignificant from a flavor standpoint, its role being that of a provider of fat to sear ingredients. Flavorless oils with a high smoke point (the temperature at which oil starts to smoke) are essential for sizzling whole spices and searing meat, fish, and poultry before we stew them in sauce. Vegetable-based oils, including canola (which is not rapeseed oil, although it is often described that way), work perfectly for this. Low in saturated fats, they also have a reuse quality that I like, especially when I deep-fry nonmeat ingredients (meats leach a lot of liquid into the oil, lowering its smoke point). Peanut and corn oil also work well for this purpose, but if you are allergic to peanuts, it’s best to avoid the oil too. I recently sampled rice oil and found it to be part of this “flavorless” category, and since it is rich in antioxidants, contains no trans fat, and has a smoke point of 490°F, it too suits my cooking style, although I don’t find it readily available.

Every region of India has its favorite oils, many of which not only provide fat for searing and sizzling but also infuse flavor. When you look toward the southwest and Sri Lanka, you find that cooks use coconut oil in their curries. The dried meat from the coconut yields an amber-colored oil, rich with buttery taste and saturated fats. There are many schools of thought as to whether this is good for you or not. One school points out that coconut oil is made up of medium-chain triglycerides (fatty acids), which are not stored in the body as fat as readily as the long-chain triglycerides found in other oils. The lauric acid in coconut oil also makes it appealing for some because of its ability to fight infections; this is the same acid found in mothers’ breast milk. When you taste the rich covering of coconut oil drizzled atop Mixed Vegetables with a Potent Coconut-Chile Sauce, you will see why we adore it.

The southeast prefers unrefined sesame oil, called gingelly oil, for its delicate nutty taste that is crucial to many of their curries. Mustard oil, much valued in India’s northeast, north, and northwest, is essential for a vital, bitter taste in their curries. Ghee is also crucial to many of our curries. It is great for deep-frying because of its high smoke point. Just before you serve a curry, drizzle a tablespoon tablespoon or two of ghee over it to experience that “tongue-coating,” satiating quality we look for in our meats.

Once you perfume an oil with spices, it’s hard not to notice the role of garlic and onion in providing fodder for the subsequent layer of sauce. Garlic and onion, indigenous to the regions in and around Afghanistan and Egypt, were considered by the Aryans in India to get in the way of seeking spiritual joy. Garlic, even now, is markedly absent in certain communities (the Jains in the northwest and the Brahmins in the south). In fact, garlic had no place in my mother’s Tamil kitchen. However, it is used in many other regions. When ground into a potent paste, it marinates strong-tasting meats, and when stewed with lentils, it delicately flavors them and imparts valuable nutrients.

Onions have a similar role, and although there are many varieties, the red onion is the most common in India. I use only red onions and shallots in my curries, but feel free to employ any kind that appeals to you. When consumed raw or pureed, onions taste pungent, but when stir-fried long enough so that the starches change to sugars, their sweet personality takes over, giving a curry incredible sweetness. And when chunky onions brown and stew in an onion sauce, I find them meaty and very tasty.

Next in the lineup is the array of liquids that bulk up the curry’s base (I always tell my students that if it weren’t for liquids, there would be no Indian curries). The obvious and most pervasive of all the liquids is water. Many of our legume curries use water to cook the grains, with a simple seasoning of spices to give flavor to the water. Acidic liquids like tomato sauces, pastes, and purees dot the curry landscape, providing not only valuable moisture but also tartness and color. Dairy products like yogurt, buttermilk, cream, half-and-half, and reduced milk solids not only provide a sauce base but also lower the hot tastes in curries.

When nut purees get involved, they provide not only the textural element but also the sauce for the meats to stew in. Vegetable and fruit purees breathe abundant flavor in curries. Legume purees supply the proteins for potatoes and, in conjunction with vegetable purees, they shine in the Parsi community’s signature Chicken Simmered in a Pumpkin-Lentil Sauce with Fenugreek. Smooth coconut milk is the medium for simmering vegetables like potatoes and carrots, while vinegars poach shrimp.

Once you understand the liquids that create waves in the curry’s sauce, you can start thinking about its body, thickness, and viscosity. Some curries are meant to be thin-bodied, and some are naturally thick because of the inclusion of a nut, vegetable, fruit, or legume puree. Then there are a few that need to bulk up, and for that we look to flours made from chickpeas, rice, and wheat. Starches help too: Some curries employ cornstarch, and other harbor potatoes as a natural built-in thickener, especially when you mash a few of the cooked tubers.

So now you know all the elements that shape a curry. Each ingredient is described further in the Glossary of Ingredients and I encourage you to have a read-through. I have also included a Shopping Cheat Sheet that tells you an ingredient’s name in English and Hindi. As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. Do experiment on your own if you are so inclined. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of curries right here for you to savor.

That's the background information.  You'll have to buy the book to get to the recipes - which are pretty mouthwatering!  If you enjoy experimenting with new food ideas, and particularly if you like curries, I can't recommend this book too highly.  I think I've got years of fun experimentation ahead - that is, if my wife will allow me near the kitchen after she reads this!



Anonymous said...

I really tried to like Indian food dishes. For whatever reason, I do not find Curry appealing in the least. Saag Gosht is a dish my wife loves, but is too visually off-putting for me.

TheAxe said...

Yum! We love our local incian p lace but this looks like a good book to have as well.

BillB said...

My wife does not like curried anything. Therefore, no East Indian/South Asian food in our house. I sneak it in every once in a while at Asian Restaurants.
I used to go to an Indian Restaurant in Arlington, Texas after church when I was single in the early 90s and loved it.

Aggie said...

For the unami aspect, you might consider using arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch. It's from a root vegetable grown in the Caribbean, and it gives an absolutely flavorless, but much richer tongue-coating experience. Most chefs add a slurry of this right at the end of cooking, when the food is warmed to serving temperature. Make gravies nice and glossy.

Old NFO said...

I like curry both the Indian and Thai versions. :-)

Lord of the Fleas said...

Back in 1983, the BBC actually did something useful, and produced a series of programs called The Spice Of Life, narrated by the wonderful Edward Woodward. Each episode featured a commonly used spice, telling its history and showing its modern uses.

A few of those episodes are available on YouTube: and the one on curry is one of those available (at least on my version of YT).

Recommended viewing.

Philip Sells said...

This looks interesting on several levels. I just made a simple chicken curry earlier tonight. One of the managers at work likes curry a lot, so this could be a Christmas book.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I don't get it. How can you handle dietary napalm from India, and get flummoxed by Texas Chili? I like a little spice, but not to where I burn out taste buds - even if they do grow back!