Curry Primer

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The word “curry” can refer to such a broad range of dishes that it’s almost impossible to define. Curries are usually seen in Asian cuisine, consisting of a protein and vegetables simmered in complex sauces. Spices and seasonings may change, and there’s no definitive combination of ingredients — but all are deliciously savory comfort food. Though many countries have their signature styles of curry, the two most popular varieties from come from India and Thailand.


Thai curries fall into three basic families: yellow, enriched with coconut milk; red, spiked with dried chiles; and the spiciest of the trio, green, heavily laden with fresh green chiles and finely shredded lime leaves. Unlike Indian curries, each sauce uses more fresh aromatics than dried spices and has a soupy consistency. Garlic, galangal, lemongrass, shallots, fiery bird’s-eye chiles and fish sauce are all staples of Thai cooking. As a result,┬áThai curries tend to be more aromatic than Indian curries.


India’s thicker curries also depend on layers of spices and aromatics, beginning with a masala, a blend often handed down through generations of families so that no two are exactly alike. A dry masala is a mixture of dried spices, with garam masala, a warming blend that often includes cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. A wet masala is a thick paste featuring ingredients like grated coconut, turmeric, ginger and chiles. Styles and flavors vary by region, too. In the south, curries are served with rice; in the north, plain unleavened roti or naan soak up the sauces.


Curries are extremely forgiving (and quick-cooking!), so don’t be intimidated to try making them yourself. Yes, ingredient lists can be lengthy, but most recipes call for pantry items that can be kept on hand. The method is simple, too — though the order of the steps may vary depending on style and the ingredients you’re using. In general, recipes instruct you make a curry paste, saute it with vegetables, add liquid, and simmer. Proteins are stirred in at the end to cook in the sauce.


Here are two recipes to get you started: the first, a Thai coconut curry, and the second, an Indian chicken curry. Once you get the hang of it, start experimenting with different spices and proteins to shake up your weeknight meal routine.


Seafood in Coconut Curry


This spicy and robust dry curry, combining both fresh and dried red chiles, lends itself to oily firm-fleshed fish such as sea bass or salmon, as well as shellfish. A generous amount of kaffir lime leaves contributes a distinctive citrusy floral note. Accompany with a green papaya salad.


For the red curry paste:

2 shallots, chopped

2 Tbs. peeled and chopped fresh galangal

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 lemongrass stalk, tender midsection only, chopped

1 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro stems

2 red Fresno chiles, seeded and chopped

3 dried red chiles, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes and drained

4 kaffir lime leaves, spines removed

1/2 tsp. shrimp paste

1 Tbs. unsweetened flaked coconut


1 1/2 cups (12 fl. oz./375 ml.) coconut cream

4 1/2 tsp. fish sauce

1 Tbs. each chopped palm sugar and lime juice

1/2 lb. (250 g.) sea bass fillets

1/2 lb. (250 g.) sea scallops

1/2 lb. (250 g.) medium shrimp

3 kaffir lime leaves

2 fresh cilantro sprigs


To make the curry paste, in a mini food processor or mortar, combine the shallots, galangal, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro stems, fresh and soaked dried chiles, lime leaves, shrimp paste and coconut and process or grind with a pestle until a smooth paste forms. Add 1-2 tablespoons water if needed to facilitate the grinding.


In a Dutch oven or large frying pan, bring the coconut cream to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 2 minutes. Add the curry paste and return to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the curry paste. Cook until the mixture thickens and the coconut oil separates from the cream, 2-3 minutes. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors are blended, 7-10 minutes longer. Taste and adjust the seasoning.


Just before serving, cut the sea bass into pieces 2 inches (5 cm.) long and 1/2 inch (12 mm.) wide. Cut the scallops into quarters. Peel the shrimp, leaving the tail segments intact, then devein. Stir the fish, scallops and shrimp into the coconut curry. Simmer very gently over medium-low heat until the seafood is opaque throughout, 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to allow the liquid to come to a full boil. Stir in the lime leaves and transfer to a warmed bowl. Garnish with the cilantro sprigs and serve at once. Serves 4-6.


Chicken Curry with Toasted Coconut


This intriguing curry is made by combining toasted coconut with a blend of eight toasted spices and chiles, lending a slightly sweet, nutty flavor to the braised chicken. Keep a close eye on the pan when toasting coconut, as its high fat content makes it burn easily. Serve with steamed basmati rice or Indian flatbread.


1 1/2 lb. (750 g.) skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm.) cubes

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice



For the spice paste:

1/2 cup (2 oz./60 g.) unsweetened flaked coconut

4 cardamom pods

4 dried red chiles, stemmed and seeded

2 Tbs. coriander seeds

1 Tbs. cumin seeds

1 tsp. fennel seeds

1/4 tsp. peppercorns

1 star anise

1/2 tsp. ground turmeric

1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon


1 small yellow onion, chopped

2 Tbs. peeled and chopped fresh ginger

4 cloves garlic

3 Tbs. canola oil

1 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. tamarind paste


1 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro


In a nonreactive bowl, combine the chicken cubes, lemon juices and 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir to mix well. Let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes.


To make the spice paste, put the coconut in a small, dry frying pan over medium heat and heat, stirring often, until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Pour onto a plate to cool. Carefully split open the cardamom pods and remove the seeds.


Raise the heat to medium-high and add the chiles; cardamom, coriander, cumin and fennel seeds; peppercorns; and star anise to the pan. Toast, stirring often, until the spices are fragrant and turn a shade darker, 3-4 minutes. Transfer for a spice grinder or a coffee mill reserved for spices and grind to a fine powder. Transfer the spice powder to a blender and add the coconut, turmeric and cinnamon. Add 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml.) water and process to a smooth paste. Set aside.


In a blender or food processor, combine the onion, ginger and garlic and process to a smooth paste. In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the onion paste and saute until it begins to brown, 4-5 minutes. Stir in the coconut-spice paste and saute for 1 minute. Add 2 cups (16 fl. oz./500 ml.) water, the sugar, the tamarind paste and 1 teaspoon salt and mix well. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and add the chicken. Return to a simmer and cook until the sauce has thickened and the chicken is opaque throughout, 20-25 minutes.


Taste and adjust the seasoning. Transfer to a warmed bowl, garnish with the cilantro and serve at once. Serves 4-6.

9 comments about “Curry Primer

  1. Melissa

    Great post filled with good information. I’m anxious to try the recipes. Thanks!

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