Deconstructing Curry: Curry Powder versus Curry

Your taste buds are evolved. You love Indian food.

I mean that yellow stuff that smells kinda’ funny.

You know..curry!

What if I told you that the yellow spice many of you use to give your chicken salad a punch isn’t Indian at all? As an Indian-American that grew up eating Indian food virtually every day, the first time I actually tasted something with the bright yellow curry powder in it was during a summer stint living in Japan back in my college days. There, they have an amazingly addictive dish called ‘kare rice,’ which brings out the best of curry powder. But it’s not anywhere near the Indian food I grew up eating.

Curry powder is a combination of spices, including turmeric, cumin, and others that when ground together give you the flavor and feel of the Indian Subcontinent. The mixture itself is rarely used in India, where the combination of spices (masalas) is varied. In the north, for example, you do have a commonly used blend of spices called garam masala. In South India, there is sambhar powder. Curry powder as we know it today, resembles sambhar powder more because of its yellow color, but is nowhere near the taste of any spice combination I’ve ever really tasted made in an Indian home.

The general thought is that that curry powder became a representation of things Indian more for export in the 19th and 20th centuries. So, the ‘taste of India’ as the British knew it was being transported to the West via this spice mixture. Despite the fact that in India itself rarely is ‘curry powder’ made or used (though a very few have told me their grandmothers do have a curry powder blend  that tastes nothing like the jarred curry powder you’d get from the store in a Western market.)

What about generally eating a Curry? So what does it mean when the Brits say they are in the mood for a good curry? Most when referring to a curry, mean a wet gravy simmered with Indian spices. In the South Indian language, Tamil, one word for gravy is typically kari – possibly where this reference to a good ‘curry’ comes from.

“Whenever my mom or grandma mentioned Kari , they also referred to the gravy, for example there’s a popular dish call ‘Kozhi Kari’, (which) literally translates as Chicken gravy.” This from Facebook friend, Karthik Varatharaj, whose parents are from Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He was raised in the Middle East and came to the States four years ago, but speaks and understands Tamil. There are Internet references that also say ‘kari’ actually means ‘blackened or grilled’ in Tamil, but obviously it can also refer to a dish with gravy.

Regardless, know that when South Asians refer to a dish, we have individual names for them. Putting them under one umbrella category vexes most South Asians who know better.

“People should know the real name of these dishes (even if it is just okra masala or something generic),” said one Indian-American Facebook friend. “I get that it will take time as people are comfortable with the curry terminology but I think it is the right next step in international foodie education!”

So, a spiced peas and cheese dish is not a ‘spiced peas and cheese CURRY’ to Indians, it’s mattar paneer. A spicy potato dish made north Indian style is ‘rassa walla aloo’. (Rassa/Rasse being the Hindi word for saucy.)

But..chicken in a spicy broth is still referred to as Chicken curry..rather Chicken Kari among Indians, according my non-scientific poll of Indian family and friends.

Confused yet?

When Indians cook, what spices do we use if not curry powder?

Individual whole and/or ground spices and spice blends.

Precisely why I encourage folks who come to my demos and classes who say they don’t like Indian food, to try my homestyle cooking. Typically these folks don’t like the distinct flavor of curry powder, but love Indian food the way it really should be made – balanced and spiced just right.

If you are delving into the world of Indian cooking, there are just a few key spices you want to get your hands on for starters:
Cumin Seeds
Turmeric Powder
Garam Masala (a blend that can be purchased or made at home by combining various spices)
Coriander Powder
Red Chile Powder or Cayenne
Mustard Seeds (more commonly used in South Indian cooking)

Does this mean that curry powder should be eliminated from your spice cabinet? Not at all! I like to use curry powder in dishes like Singapore Noodles, Malaysian soups, and Japanese Kare Rice. Just know that it’s not really authentically Indian. And, that there are quality curry powders out there and some that taste terrible. So, try a blend that’s recommended by an Indian friend and likely you won’t go wrong (I’ll provide one when I find one I like). And if you truly love the supermarket blend that you’re accustomed to already – by all means keep with it.

Just know that there is so much more out there in the world of Indian cuisine.

Come see me at Printer’s Row this weekend. I’ll be on the Good Eating stage on Sunday, June 10 at 3:15 p.m.. I’ll show you how to build the perfect curry! Or whatever you want to call it! For more information and recipes check out 


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