Curry Powder, Curry Leaves and the British Empire
I think it is probably time to talk about our first blend. To this point I have always told you about individual herbs and spices, but there are some blends that are so popular that you need to include them in any list of regular herbs and spices. One of these is a blend called curry powder. Packaged curry powder was probably a British invention. Hoping to export to England the flavors they had enjoyed in India, the British likely took back with them one of the southern spice mixtures – perhaps a kari podi (curry powder) or a sambar podi (sambar powder). This blend was added to Western style flour bound stews that were then dubbed curries. Indian cooks do not use a single spice mixture to flavor their cooking. Rather each dish is flavored individually with a combination of spices, called a masala, that may be simple or complex and that varies with the individual cook, the dish, and the region.
Along with tea, curry powder is a true Pan Asian ingredient. It is popular and heavily used in Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Thai, and other South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines, though curry has been adopted into all of the mainstream cuisines of the Asia-Pacific region. Dishes that are often classified as curries in Europe and America are rarely considered curries in their native countries. This is because we have a tendency to just add curry powder to a dish we already know and think that it is then a curry dish. Curry dishes from the Asian-Pacific region require a lot of preparation and a lot of cooking. We also do not use hot chilis as often in our curry dishes as they are used in Pan Asian dishes.
Curry powder should not be confused with curry leaves. In India the leaves of this shrub are called curry patta. They have long been used in Southern India and Sri Lanka. Curry powder is a blend of many spices, curry leaves being only one of many spices used. In addition to being used in curries, fresh curry leaves are also used in chutneys. So what the heck is chutney, I hear some of you asking. Culinarily speaking, a chutney (and there are several hundred different ones) is a thick sauce of Indian origin that contains fruits, vinegar, sugar, and spices and is used as a condiment.
Curry leaves are as important to Asian food as bay leaves are to European food, but you would never substitute one for the other. A word of caution, when added to hot oil, fresh curry leaves will spatter, so stand back and have your spatter screen ready. Curry leaves will also burn easily, so steady as she goes. If fresh curry leaves are pulverized in a blender, they make a great contribution in a chutney. Chopped tender leaves are delicious in an omelet or scrambled eggs.
Get to know Indian and Asian cuisines; they have a lot of different flavors to offer and they are usually much healthier than our typical Western fare.