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To curry favor, favor curry: 6 recipes
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To curry favor, favor curry: 6 recipes

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My house smells amazing.

I just cooked six types of curry, and my house smells like a food stall in Calcutta, or a kitchen in Guangzhou, or a home in Thailand, or a crowded street in Tibet, or a cafeteria in Kashmir, or a pub in England.

Actually, it smells like all of them, all at the same time.

It’s heaven. Absolute culinary heaven.

Curry, in its original incarnation, is any kind of sauce or gravy in Indian cooking. Usually, it is heavily seasoned with a mixture of pungent and potent spices such as cumin, fennel or cinnamon. The British, who colonized India, loved the flavor of these dishes but apparently misinterpreted the Tamil word “kari,” which might have meant “sauce." They thought it meant the assortment of spices that flavor it.

Eager to bring these tastes back to England, British soldiers blended a mixture of their favorite Indian spices and called it curry powder. It is this powder that went around the world, creating what most of the globe thinks of as curries.

The exception is Thailand. While some dishes in that country do use a mixture of dry spices similar to the English conception of curry powder, most Thai curries begin with one of several pastes made from ground-up herbs.

I set out to do a quick world tour of curries, looking both at how different countries make them and different proteins that are used in them.

I started where curries began, in India, to make an egg curry. Egg curries are not as popular in this country as they are in India, but they should be. It’s like eating a very young version of a chicken curry.

I love them. Along with ginger and onion, the one I made is flavored with cinnamon, fennel and turmeric, plus tomatoes. In what strikes me as a brilliant beginning, the hard-cooked eggs are browned in hot oil — they’re really pan-fried, but I don’t want to scare anyone away with that information — before the curry is made.

Despite the complexity of the curry, the bright taste of the egg shines through. It is a marvelous contrast: the simple purity of the egg sitting amid a mélange of wonderfully mild spices.

Next, I headed north to the mountainous region of Tibet for a chicken curry that is easy to make. But the stellar flavor belies its ease of cooking.

Chickens in Tibet are quite small, about two pounds each, with firm flesh. In these respects they are not unlike Cornish game hens, so I used Cornish game hens to make mine, but you could use a regular small chicken.

The bird or birds are simmered in a sauce made with ginger, garlic and turmeric — most Tibetan recipes do not use the bright yellow spice, but this one does. A mere pinch of red pepper flakes creates only a mild, gentle heat, which does nothing to diminish the robust taste of the other well-proportioned ingredients.

Perhaps the most familiar curry around the world is an English curry, the sort that is universally served in pubs. This is what the British soldiers in the 19th century came back to make.

There are many ways to cook pub curry, some involving more than a dozen ingredients and who knows how many intricate steps. I didn’t do that. I made an easy curry, from a recipe courtesy of the BBC, and it reminded me exactly of what you get at bars and curry houses all across England.

Because it uses two tablespoons of curry powder, this recipe packs a little heat, but yogurt is mixed into the sauce to help tame it. The creamy yogurt provides the richness to this meal, while the curry powder — and a boost of tomatoes — is the source of its depth.

Curry powder is also used in the curries of China, and I used it to make a stew that is typical of the cooking in Guangdong.

In that province, which we used to call Canton, the stew is made with lamb. I made mine with beef, and as superlative as it was, it might actually be better with the lamb.

But never mind that. If you can’t find lamb, or if you don’t care for it, the beef is excellent.

This rustic stew is hearty and fabulous, with just a slight hint of sweetness that comes from carrots and rice wine. In some respects, it resembles a typical American stew, with plenty of onions, celery and potatoes, but in other ways it is completely different.

Curry powder has a way of doing that, along with the expected soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sprigs of cilantro.

If you like cilantro, do not forget to add it. Its contrasting note of brightness elevates the stew to something extra special.

I was determined to make these curries without having to go to an international market or specialty store, and most of the Thai recipes I found required such a trip. But then I happened upon a recipe for Thai fried rice using a green curry paste, and I was entranced.

Pieces of chicken — it’s a chicken fried rice — are simmered in the curry, and then the other ingredients are added one by one: eggs (which are scrambled into the mixture), rice, peas, scallions, Thai fish sauce and soy sauce.

It is a simple fried rice, but this method of cooking it means the flavors are layered. It’s hugely satisfying, comfort food, with green curry paste.

For my last curry, I returned to India to use a perhaps unexpected ingredient: scallops. Macher malai curries are usually made with shrimp, but scallops add an extra touch of elegance.

The scallops are dusted with ground cardamom seeds, mustard seeds and fennel seeds, plus garlic and chopped dried peppers. The beauty of the dish is that none of these ingredients is acidic, so the rub can be left on overnight if you wish. The scallops soak up all of the heady spices and become potent little flavor bombs when they are cooked.

Even so, they still retain their rich and subtly briny taste. And the best part is the sauce, a simple reduction of coconut milk that is used to deglaze the pan.

Does life get better than that? Maybe. But also, maybe not.

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