Thursday, May 15, 2014

Curry Powder and Other Indian Spices

Star Anise
I love Indian food and Indian spices. I love spices, period. But when it comes to the flavors in Indian cuisine, they just do something wonderful to my taste buds. Obviously, not everyone will agree with me. I just cannot seem to find enjoyment in Thai cuisine for example, yet that is a very popular set of flavors here in the US. To each his own.

Cardamom is one spice I learned about and used first in Guatemala. Guatemala is one of the largest growers of green cardamom. My best friend there, Elena, gave me a jelly jar filled with cardamom seeds from her father's cardamom plantation. At the time in my early 20s, I had never used cardamom, but had heard of it somewhere. When I discovered Indian cuisine, and that cardamom was used often, I was hooked. So many spices I had never heard of back then: nigella, black cumin, ajwain, asafoetida, black cardamom (entirely different from the green cardamom), fenugreek, star anise. Then came the Indian spice mixtures, such as Garam Masala, which is easily found on most grocery shelves these days along with curry powder.

A sampling of some Indian spices. Set into the identical box for photos, the sizes are proportional.
I have a few requirements when I make an Indian meal. If I serve rice, my husband must have a sauce to cover the rice completely. There are a lot of Indian "dry curries" that end up nearly devoid of sauce. This is fine, as long as I am not serving rice. I happen to love rice. I can happily eat plain cooked rice. Not so my husband. When I say I use a recipe from a cookbook, I must generally make a saucier version than is called for. I usually add in things like green peppers and peas, because those are things my husband likes. I usually use coconut milk because this gives authentic flavors while providing the needed sauce. These are common enough in Indian cuisines, so it is no great deviation. As a basis for one particular curry dish I make often, I started out using a recipe from an Indian cookbook as a baseline concept. Any recipe that calls for a lot of spices automatically calls my attention. For me, the more the merrier. 

This recipe calls for garam masala as well as tandoor spice and curry powder. I have a favorite recipe for garam masala, as well as an easy variation that I use at times, below.

Easy Garam Masala

Makes about 1/3 to ½ cup

2 inches true cinnamon stick, crumbled (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 tablespoon cloves
1 tablespoon tej patta leaves, crumbled (if unavailable, omit)

1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander seeds

Place all spices into a dry skillet and heat to fairly high. Stir very often, so the spices do not burn. When they are very fragrant, remove from heat to a plate to cool. Grind in a spice grinder or coffee grinder used only for spices. Store in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry place.

I have one recipe for curry powder, but have never been quite happy with the flavor. I truly dislike store bought curry powder. For me, the flavor just does not fall into that "wonderful Indian spices" category. Making up your own spice mixes is really the better way to go. Though I am not 100% crazy about my current curry powder mixture, it far and away tops any little bottle from the grocery. With that in mind, yesterday I decided to revise my mixture and it came out way better than the previous one. The only real "coloring agent" in the mix is the turmeric, in comparison with the Tandoor Spice recipe below. Here is what I used:


Curry Powder

Curry Powder ingredients, whole and ground
Curry Powder ingredients, whole and ground

makes about 2/3 cup

1/4 cup coriander seeds
3 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon ground ginger  
4 1/2 teaspoons fenugreek powder
4 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon mace blades, (OR
1/2 teaspoon ground mace)
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 of a star anise
2-inches true cinnamon quill

Place any whole spices into a spice grinder or a coffee grinder used only for spices. Grind to a fine powder. Combine with the pre-ground spices, mixing well. Store in a glass jar in a cool, dark, dry place. 

Using a spice mixture in Indian cuisine usually entails adding them to a hot oil mix. Either whole spices are added to hot oil and "crackled" (the sound they make when frying in hot oil), or the ground mixtures are added to already sauteed onion, garlic and ginger, where the oils are mixed with the vegetables. Generally the spices are added before the main event, whether meat or other. When the meat is added, it is tossed to coat well in all the mixture of spices before the cooking begins. Sometimes, the spice mixture is mixed into the meat before it ever hits the pan at all, much like a dry rub. 

Often in an Indian recipe is used a mix of whole spices, called a Whole Masala, along with a ground spice mixture, sometimes accompanied by various other single spices. Like I said; the more the merrier! Tandoor spice is another nice mix of spices which can be used for flavor of course, but especially for the color they provide, though nothing like that garish red sometimes seen in Tandoori Chicken. (A food coloring agent is used to give the very red color, and I prefer not to use something that is not an actual spice.) With the inclusion of turmeric, paprika, ground red chilies and saffron, these ingredients are definitely coloring agents, unlike the Curry Powder recipe above. Tandoor Spice is great as a dry rub for chicken both for its color and its flavor. Here is my recipe:

Tandoor Spice

makes about 1/3 cup
Tandoor Spice

2 tablespoons ground turmeric
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 1/2 teaspoons green cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon ground dried red chiles (seeds will make the mixture far hotter and also paler colored; remove seeds if desired)
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

Grind any spices that are whole such as saffron and cardamom seeds. 

The chilies should be ground before measuring for the recipe. Conversely, if buying from a reputable Indian grocer, they may have good quality chili powder (meaning without the addition of all the seeds, and never to be confused with the "Chili Powder" mixture that is used for making chili con carne).

Once all spices are in powdered form, mix to thoroughly combine and store in an airtight jar in a cool, dark, dry place. 

Tomorrow I will write about the recipe I created for my Chicken Curry. It is so wonderfully flavored and colored. It tastes sublime. I love serving it with rice. I recently made a batch of Naan breads and if you need bread with your meal, these are wonderful. Till then!

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.