There are a lot of misconceptions and myths about curry powder. Which is really surprising seeing that curry powder is, in essence, such a simple mixture of spices.
Maybe the word “simple” is a bit misleading because there are some complicated curry powders around. But most are simple.
There are lots of curry recipes that use curry powder in order to save cooking time. It is not difficult to make curry powder but, nowadays, most people do not have a lot of spare time to make a meal when they come home from work and the temptation to use curry powder is great.
Curry powder still needs to be cooked when being added to a curry.
An Authentic Curry
But wait. Why does it sound like using curry powder is somehow naughty or wrong?
There are quite a few people who say that a curry should be “authentic” and that individual spices should be used to give a curry its heat and flavour.
But what exactly is an authentic curry? Most curries originated in South East Asia, mainly India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand. Almost every country in the region makes curries of some kind (even if they are not called curries).
And the curry recipes spread around the world and were changed to use local ingredients and to appeal to local tastes.
A Bit of Curry History
When people in the UK talk of a curry house, or of going for a curry, they are generally talking about having an “Indian” curry. Old India was all of the Indian sub-continent and has since separated into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
“Indian” curries have been around in the UK since the 19th century.
The East India Company was formed in 1600 and grew to be a very successful trading company that controlled large parts of the Indian sub-continent. The company became so big and powerful that it even had its own armies. Eventually, the East India Company was dissolved and the British government took over near the end of the 19th century.
For over 300 years, British people went to India to work, sometimes for a short length of time (such as 2 to 5 years) or sometimes longer (decades even). And they learned to like the food. And when they went back to Britain, they took their love of curries back with them, along with recipes.
The market for curries grew in the UK but it wasn’t until 1811 that the first curry house (or curry restaurant) opened in London. It was called the Hindostanee Coffee House and the target market was retired East India Company officials.
So there was 1 curry house in 1811. Today (2015) there are about 10,000 curry houses in the UK.
Curries became extremely popular in the 1960s when there was a big influx of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi people into the UK. Today there are over 1 million British Indians living in the UK (as recorded in the 2001 UK census).
All of these immigrants brought their cuisines with them and the growth of curry eating was huge.
Today, curry is widely quoted as being the most popular type of cuisine in the UK.
And all of these immigrants also brought their family curry recipes. But sometimes the curry recipes called for ingredients that were hard, or impossible, to find in the UK.
Other ingredients were sometimes used as substitutes or some original ingredients were just left out. It’s hard to imagine it being difficult to find some curry ingredients today, with the huge range of products that you can buy down at your local supermarket or corner shop.
So recipes evolved and changed until it would be hard to call many of today’s popular curries as being “authentic”.
And some curry dishes, such as chicken tikka masala and coronation chicken, were invented in the UK so they can hardly be called authentic curries.
But does it matter if a curry is authentic? As long as the food is good, in my opinion, the answer is “no’.
What is Curry Powder?
Back to curry powder.
Just what is curry powder and how is it made?
Basically, curry powder is a blend of spices.
The usual way to make curry powder is to dry-roast spices, let them cool, add the roasted spices with other spices and ingredients, and then grind them into a powder.
You put the powder into an airtight container and use the powder as you need it.
You should only make about 3 month’s supply of curry powder at a time because, like all spices, the curry powder loses its taste and aroma over time as it is exposed to air (the air gets in to the powder when you take the top off to use some).
And it is best to store your jars of curry powder in the dark because light adversely affects the strength and potency of the curry powder.
Dry-roasting spices is easy to do – all you need to do is heat a small frying pan or saucepan without using and oil or ghee, add a spice and stir-fry the spice until it just starts to darken – once the spice darkens you remove it from the heat (usually tip it onto a small saucer or plate) and then continue to dry-roast the other spices one at a time until they have all been roasted. The spices are not dry-roasted for long, with between 1 to 2 minutes being enough to bring out the aromas and essential oils from the seeds.
Once all the spices have been roasted and cooled, they are ground into a powder, either using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder. Using a mortar and pestle can take a long time and I use a spice grinder – a mortar and pestle may be the traditional way to pound the spices into a powder but it seems like a lot of hard work to me, especially if trying to pulverise cinnamon stick, star anise or dried chillies.
A spice grinder should only be used for grinding spices – if you also use the grinder for grinding coffee then you could end up with spice-flavoured coffee, or coffee-flavoured curry powder.
Roasting the spices brings out the best flavours and aromas. If you roast the spice too much then it will burn and you should throw the spice away because it will not taste good (you wouldn’t eat burnt toast).
Curry Powder Spices
What spices are used to make curry powder?
Well, just about any spice used to make a curry without using curry powder can be found in curry powder.
The main spice seeds are coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, peppercorns, cardamom and mustard. The main spice powders are paprika, turmeric, chilli, garam masala, garlic, ginger, coriander. And the main “solid” ingredients are cinnamon stick, cloves, dried red chillies and cardamom pods.
Wait a minute, I hear you say, garam masala is itself a blend of spices. Indeed it is. It is a “warm”, or “sweet”, spice blend and often contains coriander seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cloves, caraway seeds, green cardamom pods, cinnamon and nutmeg.
What about Madras curry powder? Well, Madras curry powder is usually hotter than ordinary curry powder. But it has the same ingredients as ordinary curry powder. It is just that the ingredients are used in different proportions.
Making Your Own Curry Powder Blend
The proportions of the spice ingredients are important when making any curry powder.
If you make your own curry powder, you can adjust the spices to suit your own particular tastes.
For example, if a curry powder recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, you might put 2 teaspoons of fennel seeds into your own blend because you like the taste of anise.
Obviously, making your own stellar blend of curry powder will often be down to trial and error. You may end up with some bad curry powder blends during the process but in the end you could produce an amazing blend that is unique to you.
What I would recommend is that you make a small amount of curry powder if you are trying to make your own blend. You could start with a published curry recipe but only use 1/4 measures of the recipe’s ingredients plus the adjustments that you want to make. This way you would have a smaller amount of curry powder to use up before trying your next blend.
If you do try and make your own blend, it is a good idea to keep a note of your version of the recipe along with comments and evaluations of the resultant curry powder.
The alternative to using curry powder is to make a curry with the original spices.
Typically such a recipe would get you to:-
• heat oil (or ghee)
• fry some spice seeds (such as cumin)
• fry onions, garlic and ginger
• add spices
• add chilli powder and/or fresh chillies
• add tomatoes
• add the main ingredient (such as vegetables, chicken, etc.)
Using curry powder means that you could cut out a couple of the steps and save yourself maybe 5 minutes of cooking time, a couple of minutes of measuring the spices (maybe longer if, like me, you have loads of jars that contain spices where the jars are not stored in any particular order) and a few minutes of preparation time.
One big advantage of making your own curry powder is that you won’t pad out the curry powder with “fillers” (“fillers” are cheap ingredients that are used by commercial manufacturers to bulk out the curry powder – saving the manufacturer money or keeping the costs down, depending on how you want to look at it).
Another advantage of making your own is that your curry powder may be cheaper than curry powder bought from your local supermarket or shop.
But the main pluses are that you know what ingredients are in the curry powder (no “fillers”), you have a blend that you like (why put up with a brand just because you do not dislike it?) and your curry powder is fresh when you make it (you sometimes have no idea how long a packet, or box, of curry powder has been lying around in warehouses and on shelves).
How much curry powder is used on the sub-continent? As far as I can tell, practically none. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans tend to use the spices as they need them and do not generally use curry powder. This means that they are tied up in the kitchen a bit longer but they probably say that they prefer to use fresh spices.
The Spice of Life
What about this blog’s claim that curry powder is the spice of life? Is that true? Yes.
Quite a few of the spices in curry powder have been used for centuries as traditional remedies for ailments such as indigestion, bad blood circulation, hair loss, anaemia and inflammation.
Curcumin is found in turmeric and a lot of research has been carried out with this natural compound. In recent years, it has been found that curcumin helps treat a wide range of serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, bowel cancer, diabetes, prostate cancer, stroke damage, liver damage, melanoma, breast cancer, throat cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.
A truly amazing medicinal compound that is sold in health shops either by itself or as part of a mixture of dietary and health supplements.
Other curry ingredients are also good for you and have been found to help in treating lots of conditions from high cholesterol to weight control and improved sexual performance (that got your attention).
There is such a huge range of ailments that curry powder spices help treat, it is surprising that doctors don’t prescribe curries instead of pills.
It really is very easy to make curry powder. All you need to do is follow a recipe and there you go. It is more difficult and time-consuming to make your own blend but the results can be spectacular.
You might have to buy a spice grinder but these are cheap and last for years.
Of course, you could just buy some curry powder from a supermarket or shop. But where’s the fun in that?