Greetings, Matt here!
In addition to our weekly reviews we will also feature articles that will deal with various topics from the culinary world. I thought for this first post we should talk briefly about a couple of commonly misunderstood and as a result, commonly misused culinary words- curry and masala
Up until a few years ago I felt pretty certain that I knew what curry was. I believed, as almost every westerner believes, that curry is that yellow powder used in Indian food. Masala, on the other hand, I thought was, umm.... some kind of Indian food, maybe? And then it happened. I was perusing the spices at a specialty store, and I saw packages of masala powder next to the curry powder. But they look the same, I thought. Upon closer inspection I saw that they contained very similar ingredients and even had a somewhat similar aroma. I decided right then and there that I had to know more. So after I got back home I immediately fired up my computer and got online to try and find some answers. Today I will share what I found.
You can find any number of recipes that are called 'curry this' or 'masala that,' but nobody ever really defines these terms. So what exactly do these two mysterious words mean? We will start with the simpler of the two - masala. The word masala comes from the Hindi and Urdu languages and can mean spices or ingredients. In modern culinary terms it refers to any number of spice mixes commonly used in the cuisines of the South Asian subcontinent. While all masalas contain at least three different spices, the types and amounts of the spices vary widely depending on the type of masala. This also goes for any western style spice mix or spice rub.
That was simple enough. Now what about curry? Well, this is where things get a bit fuzzy because not only is the word used to refer to curry powder, but it’s also used to refer to Indian food in general. I saw an interview with the preeminent Indian chef, Suvir Saran, in which he discussed what curry means to Indian chefs. It can refer to the leaves of the curry plant, sauces (the word curry is derived from the Tamil word kari which means sauce), or as Chef Saran put it, “that awful powder created by the English that no self-respecting Indian would ever go out buying.” Nicely said Chef, nicely said.
That’s right! Curry powder (which technically is a type of masala) is not only not of Indian origin, it is not even used in traditional Indian cookery. It was simply an attempt by the British to imitate the cuisine of the subcontinent, and who can blame them? So what exactly is curry? The most accurate definitions are probably the leaves of the curry plant and the Tamil word kari, or sauce. These are sauces whose base flavors come from various masalas. Now how about that yellow British powder? Well if you like it, I say keep using it. You’re not hurting anyone if you use it. Just understand that it is not used in true Indian cooking. Ever. For the real thing you’ll have use an authentic masala. I’d recommend starting with Garam Masala. It's one of the more commonly used and commonly available masalas.
Where can you find a good Garam Masala? While many of the larger grocery stores do stock it, your best bet is to find a good Indian store. If you happen to be on the N.W. side of Austin, Apna Bazaar is great place to visit. You are guaranteed to find all manner of masalas, spices and other ingredients there; including the ingredients to make your very own garam masala. Here's their address-
8650 Spicewood Springs Rd
Austin, TX 78759
Interested in trying your hand at Indian cooking? Here is a good basic recipe for garam masala:
Garam Masala Ingredients
- 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 20 cloves (about a teaspoon)
- 1 dried arbol chile stemmed, seeded and crumbled
- 1 (2 1/2-inch) cinnamon stick, broken in 1/2
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Combine all of the seeds, peppercorns, cloves, chile and cinnamon in an 8-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Heat, moving the pan constantly, until you smell the cumin toasting, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the mixture to a plate and spread out to cool for 5 minutes. Once cool, add the toasted mixture and nutmeg into a spice grinder. Process until a fine powder is formed, approximately 1 minute. Use immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 1 month. It looks like a lot of work - but it is worth it, especially if you just like doing things the hard way, as I do. For a more detailed discussion of this masala I recommend the Good Eats episode “The Curious Case of Curry.” That’s where I got the above recipe, which is used to make Lamb Tikka. It’s also where I learned how to make a basic Tandoor. Alton Brown is my culinary hero.
Here are a couple of links you may be interested in: