“Curry” as a word does not exist in any Indian culinary dictionary, nor is it used in any Indian language. It is rather, a corruption of the Tamil word “kari”, used by Tamilians (from the region of Tamil Nadu in India) to represent any spiced relish used to accompany rice. During the days of the Raj, the British started to describe any Indian dish, including a liquid broth, a thicker stew, or even a dry dish, all of which appear as successive courses in a traditional South Indian meal as “curry”, a practice now followed world-wide, albeit incorrectly.
There is no such thing as curry powder in Indian cooking, instead, various blends of spices are ground daily. Each is blended specifically for a particular dish. A specific spice blend is often called a masala, for example, Garam Masala and Rechad Masala., Sambar Powder and Rasam Powder, and Pitlai Podi.
Curry Powder was originally a substitute spice mix designed for British colonial officers for cooking Indian food to suit their palates. It imitated Indian taste by combining large amounts of coriander, cumin and chillies, and can vary in hotness. For example, a Madras (Chennai) style blend is made from coriander seeds, turmeric, mustard seeds, bengal gram, cumin, chillies, fennel, black pepper, garlic and salt.
Outside of India, spice mixes labelled Curry Powder are used – in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, for example, and in England for the English-style curries. While they do lack the finesse of bespoke spice mixes in traditional Indian cooking, they add flavour and are efficient to use.
If you have a “light” or unroasted curry powder, use it for lighter vegetarian dishes. For deeper flavours use a roasted curry powder which has a darker colour and stronger flavour. Unroasted curry powder is the standard one, and is the one that you buy is your supermarket. Roasted curry powder is a bit more of a speciality and is found in Asian or Indian supermarkets. You can also make your own.
Curry Pastes a la SE Asian Cuisines
Curry Pastes abound in SE Asian cuisines, and are made from a combination of spices with other ingredients including ( depending on the cuisine) chillies, ginger, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves, galangal, turmeric root, etc. Various blends are made to complement specific dishes.
In India, Spice Pastes are also used in some areas. For example, Kerala makes a sambar paste while Tamil Nadu primarily will use a sambar powder.
Whether you are cooking SE Asian or Indian, make your own pastes if you can – they are often much better than purchased varieties.
Feel free to browse recipes from our Retro Recipes series. You might also like our Spice information here. Or you might like to browse Indian recipes here and here. Check out our easy Spring recipes here and here.
Browse some information on Ingredients and Spices
- Ingredients: A Note on Avocados
- Spice Advice: A Note on Ajwain Seeds aka Carom
- Spice Advice: A Note on Allspice
- Spice Advice: A Word about Anise and Star Anise