The turmeric-colored south Indian kari podi, or the Anglicized curry powder, was one of the exotic treasures that many sailors in the past brought back home to their wives or mothers. In 1792, the following instructions for a “Curry of Chicken” recipe appeared in a book printed in Philadelphia: Get a bottle of curry powder. Strew it over the chicken when frying… if it is not seasoned high enough, put in a little cayan (cayenne).
Today there are thousands of variations of freshly bottled or canned spice powder blends (garam masala), mixes, and curry pastes. In time, a master cook in the art of seasoning and preparing sumptuous meals will develop a sixth sense for her or his ingredients without any assistance from recipes or measuring tools.
Garam masala literally means a mixture of “hot spices” and is composed of black peppercorns, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek seeds. To obtain the best flavor, garam masala must always be roasted for 2-3 minutes on a small, hot skillet over medium heat. Garam masala is used by itself or generally in combination with coriander, cumin, and turmeric to prepare a quick curry. Almonds, cashews, pistachios, or walnuts are also used in combination with garam masala and other spices to create seductive, subtle, delicate flavors and textures in a dish.
Spices are strong and must always be used in small quantities, correct measurements, and precise combinations to get the desired flavor. Some spices are more pungent and powerful than others. Always use a level teaspoonful of ground spices (never heaped). Excessive use of green or red chilies will ruin almost any curry.
Buy spices in small quantities and store them in airtight jars. Whole spices retain their flavor and power much longer than ground spices. The shelf life for ground spices is three months and for whole spices is six months.
Mughal-Style Curry Powder for Meats and Vegetables (Mughalai Kari Masala)
5 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
12 green cardamom pods, seeds removed and pods discarded
1 cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
6 tablespoons coriander seeds
6 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon ground mace
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
4 dried red chilies
2 tablespoons ground turmeric
Heat a small skillet over high heat.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the spices. Stir constantly with a spatula for 3-4 minutes until the spices change color to a darker shade and release their distinct aromas.
Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight container.
Check out my cookbooks Feast of India: A Legacy of Recipes and Fables (1991, 2015) and India’s Unsurpassed Cuisine: The Art of Indian Curry Cooking (Editor’s Choice, 2016) at www.feastofindia.net.