In the spring of 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and his crew docked their fleet at the port city of Calicut, India; months later, they sailed out again, their ships burdened with barrels of pepper, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Da Gama’s journey was one of the most successful in the Age of Discovery, and introduced on a grand scale the spices of India and Asia to distant lands. Using these exotic and aromatic blends, chefs in cultures across the globe soon transformed simple stews of vegetables, meat, and seafood into rich and fragrant curries. It changed culinary history forever.
Unlike other dishes, though, curry defies definition. The word itself is derived from the Tamil word kari, which means sauce, and most curries contain meat, seafood, or vegetables. That’s where the similarities end. In India, curry is characterized by rich sauces laden with spices, and made with cream or ghee, a clarified butter. In Thailand, curries are marked by the inclusion of lime, lemongrass, ginger, and coconut milk, while Caribbean curry is a relatively simple affair using seafood, vegetables, and a handful of spices.
Perhaps the one trait that makes curry curry, and not just a meat-and-vegetable stew, is its use of aromatic spices. There is no single spice named curry; the term refers to a blend of ground spices, usually some combination of turmeric, cardamom, coriander, cumin, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mustard, fenugreek, and pepper.
For most of us, our entire repertoire of curries has been confined to the creamy, spicy stews served in Indian restaurants, or the coconut milk—laced versions in Thai eateries. If you’ve never tried your own hand at curry making, give
it a whirl. They’re fairly simple to prepare even if the often-exhaustive list of spices can be intimidating.
Buy small quantities of spices in bulk to get started, and take great comfort in the fact that many of them have potent healing properties. And don’t be afraid to experiment; bump up the cayenne for a fiery finish, or increase the cardamom and cinnamon for sweeter undertones.
Chicken Vindaloo Serves 4
Vindaloo, a classic spicy curry, is originally a Portuguese dish of spiced pork; it takes its name from the Portuguese vinha d’alhos, vinha for wine, and alho for garlic. The combination was originally used to preserve meat ingredients from spoiling in the steamy climate. At one point, potatoes were added, probably because aloo, the Hindi term for potato, is similar to alho. Vindaloo versions also became progressively spicier over the years, evolving into the fiery offering common today. This version uses chicken instead of pork, for a lighter touch.
1 tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. ground cardamom
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. grated gingerroot
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1½-inch pieces
2 large Yukon gold potatoes, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 14.5-oz. can chopped tomatoes, drained
1½ cups chicken broth
2 Tbs. wine vinegar
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1 bay leaf
PER SERVING: 354 CAL; 27 G PROT; 12 G TOTAL FAT (2 G SAT FAT); 33 G CARB; 94 MG CHOL; 649 MG SOD; 4 G FIBER; 6 G SUGARS
Chana Saag Chickpea Spinach Curry Serves 6
Punjabi-style saag curry is heavy on the cream and butter, and usually cooked with lamb. This lighter,
vegetarian version of the creamy classic uses coconut milk for a more healthful twist.
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. ghee
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbs. curry powder
½ tsp. cumin
1½ cups finely chopped yellow onion
5 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. grated gingerroot
¼ tsp. sea salt
Dash white pepper
1 15-oz. can chickpeas
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
½ cup coconut milk
1 lb. baby spinach leaves
½ cup fresh cilantro sprigs, for garnish (optional)
PER SERVING: 235 CAL; 7 G PROT; 10 G TOTAL FAT (6 G SAT FAT); 34 G CARB; 7 MG CHOL; 455 MG SOD; 9 G FIBER; 4 G SUGARS