Enticing Spices

By Welzel, Karin | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

Enticing Spices


Welzel, Karin, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


There's no real definition for a curry, but there are many misconceptions.

"A lot of people think curry powder is what you make a curry with," says Gaynor Grant, director of Sweetwater Cooking school, on the South Side. "American people don't eat curries because they think they are hot. Not all of them are hot. They can be hot, or just spicy."

Grant has a special place on her palate for curry, having been born and reared in England, where Chicken Tikka Masala ranks No. 1 among curries.

"We used to eat curries in college like (American students) eat pizza," she says.

Curries differ among countries and regions -- India, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, South Africa, the Philippines, China, Japan, the Caribbean -- and even between next-door neighbors, says Laxmi Hiremath, author of "The Dance of Spices: Classic Indian Cooking for Today's Home Kitchen" (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., $29.95). Hiremath, a native of Pune, India, not far from Mumbai, says her grandmother made a curry with 50 different spices.

Yet, she says, "the cuisine is really very simple. That's what I've taught in the last years."

Indian curries are considered the "mother" of all curries worldwide, "just about the greatest contribution to mankind," she says proudly.

"Every state in India" -- there are 28 of them -- "has its own specialty curry, and every household will have its own way of making it," says Hiremath, who lives in San Francisco's East Bay area.

In other words, if you've tasted one curry, you've tasted just one. The possibilities are endless.

Indian curries can are generally based on nine different spices, Hiremath says, most of which are readily available in American markets or ethnic grocery stores: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, turmeric, nutmeg and peppercorns. Onions, garlic and ginger also are commonly used as part of the base.

Beginning cooks should start with just a few spices and work their way to more exotic fare.

"You can slowly add or change a few things," Hiremath says. "Don't be intimidated or afraid."

A general difference between Indian and Southeast Asian curries is that Indian recipes start with dry spices and the others employ pastes, says Grant, who teaches classes on Indian and Thai curries as part of her International Cooking Series.

The flavorings differ, too.

Typical ingredients of Asian curries include lemon grass, palm sugar, green cardamom pods, galangal (a rhizome that looks like fresh gingerroot), shrimp paste, red or green chile peppers, kaffir lime leaves, unsweetened coconut milk/cream and fish sauce, says Dorothy Tague, director of Chop, Wok & Talk! cooking school, in Friendship. Those curries tend to be sweeter than their traditional Indian cousins, she says.

Many of those ingredients are available at large supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, Grant says, but some of the Indian curry ingrendients -- such as garam masala, a spice blend, or fenugreek seeds -- might require visiting a specialty spice store or online market.

"Mainstream grocery stores usually don't carry these," she says, except for those that feature a well-stocked international section.

For whole spices, a trip to a specialty store such as Penzeys Spices, in the Strip District, might be necessary, she says, but there are plenty of resources in the area if you are willing to make a short trip. As for spice blends, often you can make your own from whole or ground spices.

The British are said to have "invented" the word curry. One theory says the term is derived from the Tamil word "karuvapillai" - - meaning black leaf -- and referring to the kari leaf, a common ingredient in curries. Another argument claims kari means soup or sauce and refers to a dish cooked in a spicy sauce.

As with all curries, there are wide variations depending upon indigenous ingredients and a family's history of home cooking. …

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