For the taste of curry: How a simple cooking technique brought love to my summer
From commercial sauces to dry spices: My story
The easiest method of grocery shopping today is to follow a routine, perhaps the use of tried-and-true lists of pre-packaged foods that seem to make life more convenient. All too often what is easiest is not healthiest. Granted, changing habits takes a little more effort than giving in to the same old routine, but why not give it a try? After all, as George Bernard Shaw once put it, "There is no sincerer love than the love of food."
The vast array of delicious dishes served up at local restaurants seem too complicated to try at home. Perhaps we believe if we are not born and raised in another food culture, we can never learn the techniques used to create mouth watering delights from other continents. Maybe it is, too, that our spice rack came pre-configured with the spices most familiar to a North American, East Asian, African or other palette. Whatever the case may be, it's never too late to manually assemble a new spice rack. During the past year I've changed my kitchen from sauces to raw spices.
Asian food has been my staple diet most of the past three and a half decades, but it wasn't until recently that I began to question how healthy certain aspects of an Asian diet really are. Sure, it may be true that I've eaten, on average, more vegetables day-to-day than the average U.S. American, but what about the flavor enhancers and peripheral ingredients like sauces or breading? The first hints that what I was eating could be unhealthy came from a family member who, in the early nineties, mentioned that the sauce I used on my steamed mustard greens was laden with MSG (monosodium glutamate/sodium glutamate) which is a virtually odorless and tasteless flavor enhancer that resembles salt. As young as I was at the time, it was easy to ignore these warnings.
Years later, my boyfriend, who was born and raised in Thailand, developed nasopharynx cancer, a squamous cell carcinoma found principally in Southeast Asia and Africa that has several suspected causes, one of which is the consumption of salted fish. We'd shared the same diet consisting of vegetables, smaller-than-average portions of various meats, and jasmine rice for more than a decade. Our diet was rich in vegetables, yes, but almost every dish contained any combination of bottled sauces, including fish sauce known as nam pla--a strong smelling fermented fishy-sea salt liquid we applied, along with oyster sauce (contains MSG) and Golden Mountain seasoning sauce, liberally to nearly every meal. Yet, we thought we were eating healthy compared to the fast food goers and those who sit down each night to big, juicy pork chops, racks of lamb and T-bone steaks.
Three and a half years ago, one year after my partner's passing, I became pescetarian/ovatarian, though I referred to my diet as mostly vegetarian; yet, it wasn't until this past summer that I discovered a technique--a secret I wish I'd known much sooner--for enhancing the flavors of vegetables using curry spices. I will share this technique below.
It was August beneath the pine trees on the outskirts of the Flathead National Forest in Kalispell, Montana. A friend had spent the past year sharing with me her locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables that are planted and harvested with thoughtfulness. She shared their preparation and I saw firsthand the sense of community that occurs when people come together to create sustainable meals: love in every bite. I had spent the springtime assembling raw spices and trying out my new technique. August and September then challenged me to create and inspire with a new variation of spices, and vegetables I'd picked from a local farm. I fed my family members during days of laughter and sorrow, after days of toiling in the hot sun, and I watched their faces light up as they sipped curried soups around a cool-evening campfire. In this way each day melted into the next as if time was a floating wave of aromas: yellow curries, red curries and masalas, that seemed to drift and mingle with Montana sunsets and nights we dined beneath the Perseids meteor shower.
Summertime faded away, as it always does, but I am still reminiscing about those moments. Perhaps I always will. It was the best summer of my life.
All because I learned a simple cooking technique.
“Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct
and taste rather than exact measurements.”
- Marcel Boulestin
- Asafoetida (A dried gum/resin from the root of a perennial called Ferula scorodosma.)
- Amchur Powder (Made from dried, green mangoes.)
- Ginger Powder
- Star Anise (Unrelated to anise, star anise is the fruit of an evergreen tree.)
- Sesame Seeds
- Dried Chilis
- Fresh Ginger-Garlic Paste (Made in a blender using fresh garlic and ginger. Recipe below.)
Assembling curry spices, and a few other necessary ingredients
The following is a list of everything you will need to prepare curry dishes (and a plethora of other Indian dishes), especially if you wish to try out a lot of different recipes you may find online. However, it is possible to cook delicious dishes using only a few of the ingredients listed: Cumin, Turmeric, Salt, Pepper, Coriander Powder, Ginger-Garlic Paste and Sugar. For all of these, I use ground versions purchased from the local Asian store where prices are much cheaper and quantities much larger than regular chain grocers offer. If you live in rural areas, spices may also be found online. Once you've acquired a taste for the multitude of combinations of flavors these spices inspire, you may do well to order in bulk.
- Cumin Powder (Also available in seed form.)
- Turmeric Powder
- Coriander Powder
- Fenugreek Seeds (An annual plant used primarily in dishes from India.)
- Yellow Curry Powder
- Garam Masala (You can make your own using a combination of some of the spices on this list, or you can purchase pre-prepared.)
- Cardamom Powder (If you want to be specific with Cardamom, you may opt for all three types in raw form: black, green & brown. A member of the ginger family.)
- Citric Acid
- Raw or Brown Sugar (or Indian Jaggery)
- Olive Oil (I use Olive Oil instead of the Indian butter called Ghee)
- Mustard Seeds
- Black and White Peppercorns
Technique for enhancing flavor of curry dishes
The technique that I learned is simple. Heat oil and then add cumin (or curry powder of your choice) until it sizzles and pops. This is the most important first step about cooking with curries and dry spice powders. Heat the oil, add the main spice of your choice.
As you become used to cooking with this method, it will happen that the aroma alone will tell you more about the taste and quality of the dish than you ever imagined. I rarely sample the dishes I make nowadays until they are finished. (Sometimes I forget to taste them at all.) My senses have become attuned to the ingredients as the spices take up the oil through the heat and fill the room with warmth and sweetness. I can tell the same way a musician is in touch with sound that the onions have not won over the garlic, or that there's just the right amount of asafoetida or amchur powder.
I'd never imagined such a simple step could make such a huge difference in the overall culinary experience. My curries went from drab and unfulfilling to fragrant and alive. I hope you will find this technique useful in your own cooking and a starting place from which you will become inspired as much as I have been.
Quick ginger-garlic paste
Ginger-garlic paste requires 2/3 parts fresh, peeled garlic to 1 part fresh, peeled ginger. For example, if you use 1 cup of fresh, peeled ginger, you will add 2/3 cup fresh, peeled garlic. I do not add anything extra, but you may want the paste to be diluted. In this case add 1 tbsp of water. Various spices can be added to the paste, if you find you like the flavors they impart. Some ideas are turmeric, pepper, salt and dried chilis.
Recipe for Ginger-Garlic Paste
- Peel and cut 1 cup ginger root into blender-sized chunks
- Peel and slice 2/3 cup fresh garlic
- Combine in blender
- Add desired spices (if any) and 1 tbsp of water (if you want further dilution)
- Voila! Store in jar in refrigerator, but careful to not allow spoilage
Flavor Enhancing Technique for Curries and Masalas (Mixtures)
- Add ample olive oil to a stainless steel pan, and heat. I usually turn the stove between medium and high and keep a constant eye on the oil.
- Once the oil is hot it will begin popping, add cumin to taste and stir until sputtering begins.
- Add ginger-garlic paste and stir, careful that it doesn't burn. Add more oil if necessary.
- If your recipe calls for onions, now is the time to add diced/chopped onions and stir.
- Add salt, pepper, turmeric and other desired spices.
- Add vegetables, those requiring more saute time should be added first. (Remember to adjust ingredients according to amount and personal taste. It will not take long to get the hang of this technique.)