Indian curry is often misunderstood even as it is being thoroughly enjoyed. The term “curry” does not refer to a single dish or even a single flavor profile.
Curry is thought by some to be an equivalent of gravy–and we all know how many different types of gravy you can make for a meal. But where in some dishes gravy is almost a condiment, curry is eaten more like a bowl of chili. Yes, you can use curry sauce as a topping in fusion food, too.
What is in curry? There literally are no rules, in the same way you have no rules when constructing a big submarine sandwich. Classic Indian curry recipes include combinations of spices including turmeric, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, cloves, cardamom, and much more. Some curries have all of the above in them, others may be simpler.
Curry can be that collection of spices mixed with yogurt, ghee, or oil. But there are also dry curries, too. Dry curries can take a bit of getting used to if you are experienced with Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala or Thai green curry. But once you get used to the lack of yogurt or oil, a dry curry is just as tempting in its own way.
What’s in Indian Curry?
What follows is NOT a recipe, it’s more like a shopping list to stock a pantry with the spices and other ingredients you may need to make Indian curries and dishes inspired by them.
The ingredients are varied, flavorful, and available in most grocery stores with one or two notable exceptions such as ghee and certain pre-made curry seasonings called masalas which are often sold as a concentrated paste containing many of the seasonings listed below. Curries can be made of many different things, the ingredients below are merely a jumping-off point for future experimentation in the kitchen.
Ghee: Clarified Butter
Clarified butter is a key ingredient in many Indian dishes including chicken tikka masala. And while the origins of that particular dish are in question (some say it was an innovation by a South Asian community in Glasgow or somewhere in England) we reference it here as it is one of the most accessible and easy-to-find Indian dishes in America.
Ghee, as an ingredient in Butter Chicken, tikka masala, and other dishes, gives this food a velvety texture and as a delivery system for a complex group of spices, it is second only to full-fat yogurt, at least in the context of a curry.
You’ll find full-fat yogurt as an ingredient in dishes like chicken tikka masala (there we go again) where you need a highly absorbent medium to carry spices and seasonings like freshly grated nutmeg, turmeric (see below), cinnamon, and more. Like ghee, yogurt adds a smooth and rich texture to any dish it’s in.
Red Chili Powder
When Americans think of the word “chili” they sometimes compare the flavor of the dish chili, but red chili refers specifically to the peppers, not the beans-meat-and-onion dish. Red chili flakes can be made from a variety of red chili peppers and its good to check the packaging on this ingredient to get an idea of the spice level.
Once upon a time, it was easier to avoid buying a fiery hot blend, but in today’s market where shows like Hot Ones explore the joys of extreme heat in food, reading the label is a smart move. You don’t want to come home with a ghost pepper-infused powder when you were really looking for a milder red chili powder.
Indian dishes call for both types of cumin; ground and whole seed. If you add some cumin seeds to hot oil in your frying pan, the oil will be infused with this seed’s nutty, rich flavor and will put a unique spin on the dish.
But you can also toast cumin, too–and toasted cumin is one of the signature flavors of a good curry. As you’ll see below, toasting most of the dry spices listed here is key to enhanced flavor. Ground cumin gives you “instant access” to its flavors, whereas cooking with the seeds may require more time and patience for the flavors to come fully through.
Using seeds is good when you want cumin to be a bit of a surprise in the dish, ground cumin is good when you need its flavor to be more consistent throughout the entire meal.
One of the more confusing ingredients in Indian curry, coriander is essentially the seeds of the plant we in America and elsewhere know as cilantro.
The seeds are coriander, and the stems and leaves are cilantro. You will find some Indian recipes referring to coriander and cilantro as coriander interchangeably, but we feel what they typically refer to is the same plant but different aspects. You will need to check the recipe to see if the coriander they refer to involves leaves and stems, or seeds.
Coriander seeds can be lightly toasted to enhance their flavor and you can grind and toast them, too.
Another misunderstood ingredient, if only for the pronunciation of its name. Many people say “too-mer-ick”, but this ingredient’s name is actually pronounced “term-erick”.
This is an earthy spice that can be bitter on its own but seriously enhances any dish that calls for it. This spice is one of the most flavor-forward in a good curry–without this spice, you might feel a dish comes close to something LIKE an Indian curry, but it wouldn’t win any awards.
Turmeric adds that golden color you see in many Indian dishes, it has a powerful aroma, and is irreplaceable in many Indian dishes. Turmeric is like ginger; it comes in a root and also in powdered form.
Like other spices, there’s nothing like freshly grated ginger. You can purchase this root at most grocery stores, but you can get it in a jar or squeeze bottle, too. Processed ginger is not as pungent as fresh ginger, but some people don’t like the bite of the fresh version and prefer the mellow, milder flavor from the processed option.
Ginger is “spicy” but not in the usual way–it’s got a sharp and powerful flavor that doesn’t impart red chili-type heat but does have its own type of warming qualities. One added benefit of ginger; it can settle your stomach if you aren’t feeling well OR if you had a wee bit too much of the hot pepper in your dish. There is a reason why ginger is so well-loved in food culture and that’s one of them.
Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg
These three spices are listed together here because they are common ingredients in many American kitchens already and you don’t really need any further explanation about them–what you do not know about grating fresh nutmeg, for example, can be remedied in about five minutes with a YouTube video.
All three of these spices have flexible uses including savory dishes and desserts. Whole nutmeg freshly grated into a dish will be a revelation for some–there’s nothing quite like the taste compared to the powdered variety.
Cloves and cinnamon sticks are tricky ingredients at times due to their nature. Ground cinnamon is an excellent substitute for the sticks, but the flavor you get from grinding it yourself on meal prep day is also impressive.
Cloves are challenging because some dishes just call for you to drop the whole clove in and pick it out later or eat around it. Some recipes sidestep this by putting them and other ingredients like them in a boiling bag that is removed later.
Each of these ingredients should be tested carefully and used sparingly at first if you aren’t used to cooking with them. It’s easy to overpower a dish with cloves or cinnamon, but once you learn how to work with these, it gets easier.
Popular Types of Curry
- Aloo Gobi
- Bhindi Gosht
- Bhoona or Bhuna
- Channa Massala
- Rogan Josh
- Tikka Masala
A Word About Masala
A masala (as in “chicken tikka masala”) is simply a blend of spices. A masala can be a paste or it can be powder, and there are typically several spices included. A masala is not a meal in itself, it’s the spice blend that makes the meal unique.
You can make your own masalas at home with any or most of the dry ingredients listed above, and you can also purchase pre-made masala on Amazon or in the “international” section of your local grocery store.
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