When you say curry, you say Indian cuisine, be it curry spices or a spice blend.
Together with its golden color and unique smell, it is a gastronomic element that defines a whole culture and niche.
Curry has a strong, deep earthy flavor, that can be mild or very spicy depending on the ingredients.
Turmeric is the main ingredient. It has a mild smell with a scent of orange and ginger. Its taste is bitter and in big quantities, it can give an unpleasant taste. In small quantities, it acts as an amplifier for other spices.
Spices like ginger, pepper, and cloves bring a spicy flavor and taste. On the other hand, coriander, bay leaves, and paprika make them more mellow. Together they form a complex mix of flavors in which each element is, somehow, present.
So, curry has a balanced flavor. Spicy notes complement mild ones making curry a versatile tool in any kitchen. Use a standard recipe for a mellower taste or drop some hot paprika to make it burn: it is your choice!
Throughout history, cooks from all around the world have played with curry taste variations. This is why we can now find Japanese curry, Southeast Asian curries, Jamaican style curry, Thai curries and many more.
In different parts of the world, you can find interesting additions such as:
- Citrus zest and juice for a citric note. This is one more level of freshness and fits those who don’t want a meal that feels heavy;
- Elements like oregano and basil work very well when the food is not cooked, adding a unique flavor;
- Different vegetable or animal fats like coconut milk that encapsulate the taste and flavor, amplify them, accentuating texture.
Therefore we can see curry as being an extremely versatile mix. It is very easy to adapt and depending on the ratios used it can work with almost every type of food.
History of curry
Archaeological evidence from year 2 BC shows us that since then spices were grounded in the Indian Subcontinent.
Pepper, mustard, fennel, and cloves (many Indian curry spices) residues were found in different objects used for grounding.
Also, skeletons from that period have spices and curry dishes in between their teeth for example.
Until colonialism, curry was a thing in the Indian Subcontinent and its surroundings.
Some spices were grounded and sent on the main trading routes to Europe. But only the very rich could afford to buy them. Thus, the original curry taste has been lost due to different geographical characteristics.
However, with the industrial revolution and colonialism ages, foodstuffs and spices became more and more accessible, making room for curry dishes in all sorts of kitchens around the world.
Today we can talk about Indian curry as a mix of spices as well as food. Dried spice mixes started from a different mix that Indians made for British trading companies in the 18th century.
Similar to Garam Masala, only it had turmeric or ginger as the main ingredient. Due to the British Empire’s expansion, it was only a matter of time before curry powders arrived everywhere.
And with the help of the industrial revolution, it became very accessible. It was used in all sorts of foods, Indian cooking related, and not only, mainly because of its strong and rich flavor.
It was a complementary flavor in soups, tied to meat in marinades, and the main element in savories and sauces.
Curry’s main ingredients
Curry powder contains a lot of spices adapted to each geographic region. Traditionally, it is made with ginger, garlic, turmeric, black pepper, and cardamom.
These ingredients can be crushed and made into a paste, diluted with water and/or fats.
Meats and all sorts of vegetables can be added to the obtained sauce. It goes without saying that curry can be a delightful vegetarian choice as well!
Soups contain a considerable quantity of water for diluting the curry paste. In sauces and gravies, this is done with little to none.
History shows us that Indians were using coconut oil for thickening. Other fats and oils amplify the flavors, making them more intense by dissolving flavor molecules in fats.
These days, for thickening, we use starch or flower, or other thickening agents.
Traditional Indian curries
Pouring sauce over sides is something that people have been doing for a very long time. Rice is the classic side of Indian cuisine. Today you can find many more side options, such as potato salads, veggie mixes, and different vegetables.
But, in terms of parity, you can be sure you can not go wrong with certain blends. The traditional option works very well if you are a fan of rice.
If this is not your thing, find out that you can substitute rice with different beans, long or not, peas, green bell peppers, hard texture veggies, and others.
On a general note, any types of sauces or savories work well with each veggie you want to pour over. Especially if that side of vegetables is cooked Al Dente.
Of course, even for this rule, you can find some exceptions like mashed potatoes – Am I wrong to say that anything goes well with mashed potatoes? – and cauliflower.
Sweet and savory spices
About the sauce, this can be more or less liquid. It thickens with different fats, with stock or starch. There is a big difference in using fat vs starch:
- starch keeps more of the initial curry smell and curry taste
- fats amplify them, changing the texture and the overall culinary experience
What does curry taste like when paired with fats?
Fat molecules encapsulate the flavors, and, by cooking, these get dissolved. More fat creates a more creamy texture and amplifies the Umami taste. They improve curry’s taste and its distinct flavor.
If the fat comes in form of stock, this means that more flavors are incorporated in the final sauce, along with a slightly sweet taste depending on what that stock is made from (usually carrots, potatoes, thyme).
Different vegetable fats like olive oil bring a slightly fresh Mediterranean flavor and a pungent note. Neutral oils like sunflower oil keep the initial flavors and taste the same. Animal fats bring a creamy texture depending on the quantity used.
The fat content of coconut milk is the to-go fat for all curry dishes, but also other types of Indian food. Using full-fat coconut milk improves curry’s taste, getting you closer to the original Indian cuisine experience.
When we talk about the spice mix, what matters the most is the ratio of each ingredient. A bigger quantity of pepper, turmeric, cloves, and mustard bring a hot taste and a strong flavor. In some cases, it becomes even pungent. Paprika powder and other spices bring a slightly sweet flavor.
On the opposite side, cumin, coriander, paprika, and bay leaves, bring a fresh flavor and taste, making them more friendly towards those who don’t eat spicy food. This way, the flavor tends to be more on the neutral side, with just a note of spiciness.
You can’t confuse that color, right? That unique yellow comes from the active compound present in turmeric, called Curcumin. Ginger also contributes to this color.
By adding paprika powder you can acquire a pleasant orangey palette, more similar to cream soups from carrots or vegetables.
In soups, curry mix brings a gentle earthy flavor. These soups are usually made with lentils, different meats, or various vegetables related to Southeast Asia. They are usually served with a variety of Indian bread.
Meats can be marinated before cooking. When meat is grilled without any addition of water, the spices tie to the meat and get grilled together. As a big plus, curry marinades not only get the flavor in the meat, but make the overall juiciness hit high peaks.
This way, you can be sure you will reach the juiciest, most tender, and perfectly flavored piece of meat.
How about nutrition
Because of the multitude of ingredients used, curry (as an all-purpose spice or food) brings a lot of benefits for those who consume it.
By different medical discoveries, it became well known that a certain level of spiciness helps your guts. This happens by regulating the digestive system on all levels. Also, the multitude of nutrients is essential in keeping the body healthy.
- Pepper is a good source of magnesium and vitamin K
- Ginger is rich in antioxidants
- Garlic reduces the level of cholesterol and is an excellent source of antioxidants
- Bay leaf is known for vitamin A, B6, and C
- Also, mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon, and other condiments are a source of antioxidants, fibers, Calcium, copper, vitamins C, A, K, and so on.
Rice is a widely known source of carbs and fibers, especially if we talk about whole grain.
The same can be said about veggies, especially those with a hard texture, like broccoli and carrots. They also come with a good amount of vitamins (For example, vitamin A in carrots and C in broccoli).
Vegetables like lentils, beans, and peas are some excellent sources of vegetable proteins. They also bring a certain amount of carbs. These vegetables are a vital part of the diet of each one that does not eat any kind of meat.
Meat is the main source of protein, zinc, and vitamin B with curried chicken as the most iconic Indian meat dish.
Acquired taste or not
Curry tastes can be different depending on the used ingredients, the ratios, and the way of cooking.
It can be characterized by earthy, strong Umami flavors, mild spiciness taste, and a very distinct and strong flavor.
And with some creativity you can make a step forward and bring some new elements into the classic dish. Finding the best curry taste is a matter of practice.
And once you start, your mind will move from “This is not the taste I look for” to “I would love a slice of orange in this“.
Add some nuts, figs and whatever else you will find in your kitchen. Imagination is the best tool you have, together with your knife and pan.
Take it as a journey! It is your journey where each step forward is teaching you one more thing that will make you the best chef in this world! Or maybe just in your family, who knows?
Did you know
- Curry was considered to be Britain’s adopted dish. Great Britain has a curry house in every town and it is one of the most popular foods.
- Curry powder does not contain curry leaves, as you might believe. Curry leaves are an important part of India’s cooking scene, but it is not mandatory for them to be present in any curry.
- The active compound of turmeric is a very good antioxidant and an Exceptional natural anti-inflammatory. Also, it can boost brain activity and capacity to fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
Wrapping up, curry is a very complex set of flavors, tastes, and textures. It differs depending on the ingredients used, ratios and cooking method. And because of that, there is no “perfect” taste and smell of curry.
Spicy or mild, sweet or hot, acquiring the perfect curry is a journey you should be aware of, and eager to step on. Once you are there, a whole universe lies before you, ready to get your next meals to a new level of taste and flavor.