Name that Spice Blend

CURRY. KARI. KAENG. However, you pronounce it or whatever you choose to call it; curry is one the most beloved dishes in this world. It is impossible to precisely define the origin of curry, as there are literally thousands of recipes originating from different cultures around the world.

The word ‘curry’ comes from the word ‘kari’ in the Indian Tamil language and it is generally used to denote any saucy (or non-saucy) dish made with a blend of spices. The Indian subcontinent is considered the original birthplace of curries and from there migrated to the West following the British colonial rule in the 18th century. Many believe that curry spice blends were originally developed by Indian traders to help returning British rulers and expats to re-create the taste of Indian curries back home. (Amazingly, the British obsession with curry has led to the proliferation of some 15,000 Indian restaurants in England today -- more than in Mumbai or Delhi -- and the declaration of National Curry Week.) The subsequent Indian spice trade boom also influenced curries throughout the rest of Asia although each region retained its own distinctive techniques and styles.

As a result, the world of curries today refers to a complex collection of global variations. In the U.S. market, based on restaurant menus and what’s sold in supermarket shelves and freezers, curries generally fall under three categories – Indian, Thai and a smaller group comprising of Malaysian and Indonesian.

Indian curries are typically Northern Indian or Southern Indian style. Northern Indian style curry is characterized by its use of hard spices such as such as cloves, cinnamon, cardamon and cumin (as in the spice blend garam masala), frequent use of dairy products such as cream, yogurt or milk, and wheat-based staples such as naan bread. Flavors are bold, spices are pungent, and sauces are rich and creamy. Southern Indian incorporates similar spices and can be even more spicy hot. It relies heavily on coconut milk and instead of naan or roti, rice is the preferred starch staple. Southern Indian style food is also lighter. Take rasam, the popular thin spicy broth served at the beginning of a meal, and sambar, a lentil-based vegetarian stew made with spices and tamarind, for instance.

On the other hand, Thai curries or kaeng pet, which translates into ‘spicy curry,’ are quite different. They are generally more herbaceous because of the heavy use of fleshy aromatic roots and leaves and are brothy with water and/or coconut milk as the liquid base. The most popular Thai curries – be they green, red or yellow -- are made by simmering meat and vegetables in a curry paste of made from pounded chilies, lemongrass, galangal and Kaffir lime along with shrimp paste and hard spices such as coriander and cumin seeds. Red curry paste is made predominately from dried red chilies; green curry paste is made from green chilies and yellow is made from turmeric and chilies. What makes the Thai rendition distinctively different from Indian is the aromatic flavors, its brothy composition and the savoriness of nam pla or fish sauce added during the cooking.


“Curries generally fall under three categories – Indian, Thai and a smaller group comprising of Malaysian and Indonesian.”

Malaysian and Indonesian style curries are somewhere between Indian and Thai and are typically thick, highly flavorful and sometimes tangy with its heavy use of tamarind. While many versions bear similarities to those in India, Malaysian curries rely heavily on rempah, an essential spice mixture of pounded fresh red chilies, turmeric, shallots, galangal, lemongrass, candlenut and belachan, or fermented shrimp paste. In the beef rendang dish for example, the meat is slowly cooked in the rempah and coconut milk until the liquid has evaporated, allowing the meat to completely soak in the sauce and become an intensely flavorful dry-style curry that begs for a side of hot steaming rice.

In summary, while there are certainly differences and variations between the curry traditions, all great curries start with fresh quality ingredients and a passion for preparing them in a way that each spice and herb is allowed to meld and blend so the end result in a craveable and enticing dish.