Everything You Need to Know About Curry Powder
In the pantheon of spice blends, no mix is quite as complicated as curry powder, which despite its prominence in global cooking, has always been a bit of an enigma to even the most knowledgeable of spice users.
After all, the word ‘curry’ is a complex one, referring to a kind of spice blend, a category of dishes, and a kind of leaf, but for most Americans this term is primarily connected to the powder you’ll find in every grocery store—and probably your own pantry.
While there are endless pre-packaged blends of curry powder, no two recipes are the same, and the complex mix is often made up of up to 20 different spices and herbs including turmeric, cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, saffron, nutmeg, fennel, cloves, chilies, tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom, and more.
This intricate ingredient, while most commonly associated with Indian cooking, has been embraced by many countries and cultures as a fundamental part of their cuisine, from Thailand to Indonesia to Pakistan. So, where did curry powder originate from, and why is it so complex?
Despite the ingredient’s Indian identity, curry powder was actually an invention of 18th century English colonists participating in the early Indian spice trade. Living among locals who ground a fresh blend of spices for every meal, the Brits, who were unfamiliar with the complexity of the Indian spice preparation, came to associate the word “curry” with an amorphous blend of spices used to flavor the country’s traditional meat and broth-based dishes.
Though these Westerners labeled this spice mixture “curry,” recreating their own bottled blends and establishing the term still used for this powder much of the world, Indian cooks more typically refer to their day-to-day spice blends as “garam masala.” While the basic spices used in Indian cooking are fairly consistent from household to household, each family uses different proportions and ingredients to create their own distinct taste. And, unlike the curry powders available at your local grocery store, Indian garam masalas are typically still ground fresh daily to ensure the richest flavors.
In addition to standard Turmeric-heavy curry powder best recognized by its bold yellow appearance, another common blend is Madras curry powder, which is slightly spicier and has a redder hue thanks to the prominence of ground chilies in the blend. Other common varieties include Vindaloo curry powder, the spiciest of curries prepared with greater quantities of chilies, Maharajah curry powder, a subtly sweet and bolder tasting curry, and Sweet curry powder, which is the mildest of all the mixtures.
The other most prominent world cuisine known for its curries is Thai, which utilizes similar ingredients as its Indian cousin, but has a spicier flavor and aroma, with more prominent levels of coriander seeds and chilies. However, Thai curry dishes—which come in red, yellow, and green varieties—are usually made with curry paste, rather than a powder (read up on the difference between the two ingredients here).
Other regions associated with curry include Africa and the Caribbean, due to large amounts of Indian migrants who settled in South Africa and on islands like Trinidad and Jamaica. While Jamaican curry powder, made with spicy mustard, peppercorns, and chilies, is known for its intense heat, Trinidadian curry is a milder blend.
South African curries, on the other hand, predate the British invention of curry powder, and were first created on the continent 250 years ago by the large population of Indian colonists in the area. The African take on curry powder is typically referred to by spice mongers as Ras El Hanout, or “top of the shop,” and is a mixture of a variety of their most premium spices.
In a nutshell, it’s impossible to determine one standard definition or recipe for curry powder, as each mix is completely distinct and created with a unique blend of spices to fit the preferences of the chef. Due to this complicated nature, there are a myriad of recipes and methods available for creating your own signature blend at home.
Start with a standard curry powder recipe, a milder blend, or a slightly bitter salt-free mix and play around with the quantities and ingredients until you land on a flavor that you want to use in your cooking time and time again.
Since there’s a slight chance you don’t have time to grind your curry powder fresh every day in the true Indian tradition, your bulk blend should stay fresh and flavorful in an airtight container for up to two months.