May 13, 2016
Curiosities of Curries
from Chef Gregg Nelson
Growing up around New York and being a Chef in New York City— only to relocate to San Francisco for a Chef position opening restaurants—has left a heavy influence of Asian and Hispanic culture in my cooking. So many great ingredients to use; so many versatile cooking techniques and varied cooking apparatus; so many great aromas and tastes!
One of my favorite ingredients to use in my cooking is curry. Whether it’s a dry spice or a paste, curries can be found in many dishes throughout Southeast Asia. Curry is used in the cuisines of almost every country and can easily be incorporated in a dish.
Now the history of curry goes back many, many centuries—and it may be a bit of a surprise to you. While the use of curry probably originated in India, there’s evidence of it being used as far back as 1700 BC Mesopotamia. In the western world, its use in England was chronicled in the first book written on English cooking— from the time of Richard II in the late 1300’s. While you might not think that the English would like curry, its expansion throughout England can be attributed to the British Raj. His personnel acquired a taste for the spicy foods when stationed in India. These recipes were brought back home and the British refined them to suit their palates.
The long history of curry and its adaptation into so many different cuisines has resulted in a number of different variations, tastes and colors. Interestingly enough, the word ‘curry’ has a different meaning in the western world than India. In India, curry refers to a gravy or stew dish. Typically these dishes contain the Indian spice mix garam masala along with ginger, chili, cumin, coriander, turmeric and sometimes onions and garlic— but it can be made up of many things. Ingredients in Indian curries differ by region.
In the west, when we think of ‘curry’ we generally think of curry powder. Curry powder itself is not a single spice but a blend of different spices. This golden colored spice blend is one of the oldest mixes and is most often associated with Indian cuisine. Although most westerners associate the golden yellow color (from the turmeric) and the pungent spice with the term ‘curry’, curry powders actually come in a variety of colors and heat index. And although most people associate curry with hot and spicy flavors, the original Indian curries did not have any peppers since chilies and red peppers were not native to India. It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus brought chili seeds back from the new world that they made their way into Indian cooking to become part of the spicy curries we know and love today.
Another type of curry is the pastes used in Thai, Burmese and Indonesian cuisine— like those used to make coconut curry sauce. Curry pastes can be red, green or yellow. Generally green is the hottest of the Asian curries; reds have medium heat and yellow is the mildest.
No matter what spices you mix in your curry— it’s guaranteed to always be exotic and tasty. A favorite in many of my dishes both professionally and personally.