Curries are tongue-tantalizers. Here is a simple recipe for a vegetable curry, along with information about the background of commercial curry powders. This is the third post in my Indian series; it accompanies Tandoori Chicken and the cooling condiment Dahi Raita. My next post for egg rice will complete this series.
In her book, Eight Flavors, The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Sarah Lohman lists curry powder as one of America’s eight leading flavors that distinguish American cuisine. Before looking at this, let us first define this spice blend.
The Make-up of Currry Powder
Curry has a yellow hue due to its main ingredient turmeric, which makes up 25-50% of these blends by weight (for properties of turmeric see African Bobotie). Coriander and cumin are its other primary ingredients.1
You will also typically find red or black pepper, mustard, ginger, clove, cardamom, bay leaf and fenugreek in its makeup of spices and herbs; there can be up to twenty ingredients. No two curry blends are ever the same; thus, when you find a label you really like, it is best to stay with it. 2
Curry Powder Not Found in Indian Cooking
Important to note: the word curry in Indian cooking refers to the dish itself: meat, vegetables, and a sauce, but not the spice blend-what we westerners know as “curry”. Rather in Indian cuisine, we find such popular spice blends as garam masala from north India and Sambar podi from south India. There the resultant dishes that incorporate these and other spice blends are are referred to as curry, rather than the spice blends themselves. 3
Garam Masala and Sambar Podi
Garam means “warming” and masala means “a blend of aromatic spices”, and this is the basis for our “mild” or “sweet” curry found in the West. It, however, differs from our western curry powder, with curry tending to be even milder in flavor than garam masala. This is due to curry’s abundance of turmeric, which adds color, but very little favor, and that which is there is flowery. Our curry powder is also rich in cumin, coriander, and fenugreek, all of which lend to the mildness of its flavor. 4
The Indian spice blend garam masala, which varies from region to region, is more pungent and sweeter due to its ingredients: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, and mace. As with curry powder, garam masala also has some cumin and coriander in its blend, but these other “sweet” spices make it different from our curry blend. 5
Another spice mix from south India, Sambar podi, is the source of our hot or “madras” curry powders, and it differs from garam masala in that it has a good quantity of chili peppers amongst its other spices, such as turmeric. 6
The blended powder, curry, we find on the western market is not a staple in Indian cooking, as is believed in the West. Rather curry powder was created in the UK, as a shortcut for evoking the essence of Indian cuisine. True Indian cooking requires endless chopping and grinding. The brands of curry that we buy here in the U.S. are often marked “mild” or “hot” (madras). This varies with the type of pepper used-cayenne, or red pepper, rather than black, allows for the heat. 7
The Assumed Etymology of Curry Powder
In her book Classic Indian Cooking, Julie Sahni explains the term curry powder is not as old as the spice blends it describes; some of which are the southern Asian dishes below, which utilize the curry plant and curry leaf. Sahni projects that the word curry probably came from the Sanskrit word kari. Sahni states that kari refers to this curry leaf found in Indian cooking. She explains that in India the sauces made from kari leaves and other spices were called kari podi; Her hypothesis is that this term made a linguistic jump in English to “curry powder”. 8 (For more common foods using Sanskrit names, see Laban bil bayd and West African Bobotie.)
The Curry Plant and Curry Leaf
The curry plant and curry leaf are not found in western curry powders, but they are used in Indian curry dishes. The curry plant is a Mediterranean member of the lettuce family, Helichrysum italicum, which has a flavor reminiscent of curry. A number of its terpenes give it a vaguely spicy, pleasant aroma. It is used in Indian egg dishes, teas, and sweets. 9 (For more on the flavor family of terpenes, see Sage Turkey Delight.)
There is a curry leaf used in cooking in this part of the world as well; it is the leaf of a small tree Murraya koenigii, which is in the citrus family and is a native of southern Asia. Households in south India and Malaysia grow this tree and add its leaf to many dishes, but its flavor-in spite of its name-does not resemble what we consider as curry. Rather, it is mild and subtle, with woody fresh notes. The curry leaf is found in stews and simmered dishes, and it also is used to flavor cooking oil. 10
Curry Powder-How It Became a Leading Flavor in American Cuisine
In Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine, Sarah Lohman traced the advent of curry powder as a major part of American cuisine, as coming through our Anglo roots.
England had been trading with India since the 1600’s, and the British made India an official colony in 1858. Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India, in 1877. England’s love for Indian food came through the British soldiers, merchants, and government officials, who wrote home about its grandeur. When these sojourners returned to England, in some cases they brought back their Indian cooks; in other cases they hired English cooks, who were trained in India. In England, Indian cuisine had become so popular that it was found in English coffeehouses by the mid-eighteenth century, making it available to everyone. The nation became very familiar with Indian cuisine, and simply loved all things Indian! 11
Loman states that because of the English, curry powder have been used in America for over two hundred years-long before the first Indian immigrants arrived. The love for curry first came to our American shores with the English colonists; they had brought with them the popular English cookbook: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, 1747, by Hannah Glasse. It contained a basic recipe for the simple, Anglo-Indian curry; its instructions simply stated to stew a chicken with finely ground turmeric, black pepper, and ginger, blended in a cream sauce. 12
Curry Recipes Became Common in 19th Century American Cook Books
In the century following this, numerous American cookbooks boasted of curry recipes, indicating its wide spread popularity here. I will mention but a few. Mary Randolph wrote The Virginia Housewife, 1824, which was the first American cook book with curry recipes. Her book boasted of six curry receipts (indicating the widespread use of curry here), and one of these was for curry powder itself. Her version of this spice blend was flavorful and hot, probably stemming from the south Indian Sambar podi, though Randolph was most likely not conscious of this. 13
Mrs. Child published the receipt “To Curry Fowl” in The American Frugal Housewife, which had 33 editions, beginning in 1829. My facsimile is of the twelfth edition dated 1833; here her unique curry calls for a spoonful of lemon juice and an optional spoonful of tomato catsup. 14
Published in 1885, in Portland, Oregon, The Webfoot Cook Book has two curry recipes. One calls for: a half a pound of butter, two onions, a gill of rich gravy, and a heaping tablespoon of curry powder, to which meat of any kind is added. Sounds pretty rich, but we must recall that 19th century Oregonians were far more physically active, than we are now. 15
Celebrity Chef Ranji Smile-the Reason America Fell in Love with Indian Food
Loman points out that the trend for an authentic Indian experience in the area of food was minimal in the U.S., until America’s first celebrity-chef Ranji Smile arrived in 1899. He had already made a name for himself in London, where “all things Indian” was extremely popular. At the turn of the century, America’s first Indian chef, Smile and his food from India immediately became the craze in New York. This “following after the English” came through Smile’s creative, exotic dishes, at America’s well-known Sherry’s. 16
Louis Sherry had opened the New York restaurant, named after himself, in 1890. Its elegance made it a rival of the popular Delmmonico’s. 17 Nine years later while eating at Cecil’s in London, Sherry encountered Smile’s exciting curries, and hired him on the spot. Smile’s beautiful Indian cuisine was transported to America, where it became the rage!
Perhaps it, however, is best to say that there was a mixed success in Smile’s attempt at having Indian food take over our nation, in the manner it had in England. Nevertheless, there was a growing number of Indian restaurants, as well as Indian recipes in American cook books, in the early 20th century. As the number of Indian restaurants in New York grew, Fannie Farmer’s 1921 cookbook came forth with twenty recipes, which used curry powder! 19
Curry, A Leading Flavor in America Today
Now in the 21st century, there are around two million Indian immigrants in the U.S.A., with nearly three hundred million Americans claiming Asian Indian ethnicity. According to Loman, this is the third largest immigrant group next to Mexico and China. As noted, the English colonists introduced curry in America-long before these immigrants started arriving. Then 100 years later, Smile made it trendy at the turn of the 20th century. 20 And now, as Loman declares, it is indeed one of eight flavors that make up American cuisine, though it is not well known as such.
My First Taste of Curry in Blackpool, England
My first experience with a curry dinner was in Blackpool, England in 1974, while I was a student in London. During this time, friends of friend of my family invited me to their home in Blackpool, where we celebrated with a fancy, British, curry dinner-a first for me.
I remember it being dense in flavors, which exploded in my mouth. After scooping out a heap of curried meat and vegetables on my plate, I was instructed to top this with a wide array of condiments-from shredded coconut to raisins, from grounded peanuts to chopped tomatoes…and oh so much more. Needless to say, I was thrilled by this experience of my first encounter with curry, which left a lasting impression!
When looking back, we see how our “firsts” in life leave indelible impressions. Therefore it is important that we respond appropriately to new foods and experiences in life.
It is said that we must keep our hearts with all diligence, for out of them come the issues of life. Doing so requires being alert, sober, and vigilant, protecting our hearts; this indeed dictates much about the quality of our lives.
Several years ago I had a most daring challenge, with regards to my walking this out with new foods. I had been asked to be a judge at the re-enactment of a Mountain Men’s Rendezvous, at the historic site of Fort Vancouver, in the state of Washington.
I and the other judges made our way through the “living-history” camp, tasting the delicacies these mountain men had made; we were to choose the dish that was the most authentically prepared., while being the most unique.
With vivid imagination, I recall eating rattlesnake and pemmican. After the initial shock, I found the rattle snack tasting rather pleasantly like chicken; the pemmican on the other hand was pure animal fat, with a little bit of meat and dried berries ground into it-aaugh!
There was laughter and joy amongst this stepping out in faith, to experience the unknown; we bonded together as brave souls.
May you enjoy the simplicity and wonderful flavor, of the recipe below for curried vegetables.
- Sarah Loman, Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), pp.89, 90.
- https://www.the spruceeats.com/curry-powder-and-indian-food-1957468
- Sarah Loman, Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), p.90.
- Sarah Loman, Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), p.90.
- Harold McGee, On Food and History (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 409.
- Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), p. 94.
- Facsimile of Mrs. Childs, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co., 1832), pp. 84, 85.
- Facsimile of First Presbyterian Church, The Webfoot Cook Book (Portland, Oregon, 1885), p. 173.
- Sarah Loman, Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), pp. 94-98.
- James Trager, The Food Chronology (New York: Owl Books, 1995), p. 335.
- Sarah Loman, Eight Flavors, the Untold Story of American Cuisine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), pp. 94-111.
- Ibid., pp. 111, 112.
- Ibid., p. 88.
Curried Vegetables Recipe
Yields: 8 servings. Active prep time: 35-45 min. Note: this makes a medium-hot curry; may add more spices as desired. This may be done ahead of time and reheated.
6 1/2 tsp oil (Either avocado or coconut oil is best here for health benefits; olive oil is carcinogenic when heated to high temperatures.)
1 med yellow onion
1 lb carrots (The one-pound bag of organic, peeled, mini carrots, from Trader Joe’s are easiest, as they require no prep time.)
1 1/2 lb fresh green beans, cut in two-inch pieces (May use a 24 oz bag of frozen French green beans, from Trader Joe’s.)
1 lb zucchini, cut in two-inch strips
1 bell pepper, cut in two-inch strips (Organic is important, as bell peppers readily absorb pesticides.)
1/2 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp dried, ground ginger (Trader Joe’s carries a great ground ginger, which is so reasonably priced at $1.99.)
1/2 tsp ground cumin (Trader’s has the best price on this-$1.99 a jar, the same as with most of their other spices.)
1/2 tsp turmeric (This too is available at Trader’s for their great price.)
Scant 1/4 tsp red, cayenne pepper (Trader’s carries this inexpensively as well.)
1 tsp crushed, dried red pepper
1 tsp salt
6-7 lg cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine (May substitute 3 cubes of frozen garlic from Trader Joe’s, for easy prep.)
- If using frozen beans, take out of freezer and open bag (or better yet, thaw in refrigerator overnight, for quicker cooking).
- Spray vegetables with an inexpensive, effective vegetable spray (mix 97% and 3% hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle) and let stand for three minutes; rinse well.
- Cut onion in even 1/8” slices; heat 1/2 tsp oil in a large frying pan, over medium heat-when a small piece of onion sizzles in oil, add the rest of the onions. Stir onions well, to distribute the oil. Turn heat down to med/low and caramelize onions, by stirring every several minutes, until color starts to form; then, stir every minute or so, until dark brown. Meanwhile proceed with the next steps, watching onions carefully.
- Heat last 2 tbsp oil in a large sauté pan; when a piece of carrot sizzles in it, add the rest of the carrots, and cook uncovered over medium heat.
- If using fresh beans, cut them in 2” pieces (see photo below). Add to carrots-which have been cooking, for at least 3-4 minutes while you are preparing beans. If using frozen beans, be sure to wait the 3-4 minutes, before adding the beans to the carrots.
- Cover the pan, if using fresh beans, but if using frozen beans keep the pan uncovered. Stir occasionally.
- Chop the zucchini in 2” pieces, set aside.
- Cut bell pepper in 2” strips, being sure to de-seed the pepper first. For easy chopping, cut the halved pepper-with skin side flat on counter-in narrow strips, by cutting at a diagonal, alternating sides (see photo).
- Add these to the pan of carrots and beans.. Cook until vegetables reach desired tenderness.
- Meanwhile chop the garlic, set aside.
- Mix well the spices and salt in a small bowl; set aside.
- When vegetables are done, add spices, distributing evenly throughout vegies; then, mix in the garlic. Cook until the aroma of the garlic rises from pan, or until frozen garlic cubes are thawed and mixed in. (See more about cooking with garlic at Tomato/Feta Chicken .)
- Adjust seasonings and serve with Tandoori Chicken and Dahi Raita, as a cooling condiment.