What Is Curry, Anyways? | Bon Appetit
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There isn’t a more delicious, soulful, intensely satisfying delivery vehicle for flavor than curry. It is the base of the sauces of our dreams, whether mixed into rice noodles, spooned over rice, or used to coat tender chicken thighs. But what is curry, anyways? Well, for one thing, the word “curry” refers to a lot of different things depending on where you’re getting it and in what form, and all of those difference will inform what’s in it, how it tastes, and how it’s used. We’re by no means experts on the wide and complex world of curries, but here’s a quick guide to the types we encounter most often in our day-to-day cooking.
Curry can come in the form of a paste, usually sold in a sealed jar or can. These tend to be comprised of fresh ingredients—think lemongrass, ginger, galangal, chiles, and/or herbs—that are ground together to make a thick puree. Pastes like these are often used in Southeast Asian curries, where they’ll be sizzled with oil to bring out their aromatic qualities before being thinned with a liquid like coconut milk to create a sauce or soup base. We love the fact that store-bought curry pastes are packed with flavorful ingredients that we crave but tend to be harder to find outside of Asian supermarkets. While we love the idea of buying bundles of fragrant lemongrass, knobs of galangal and ginger, and tons of herbs and grinding up our own, we’re also happy to let someone else do the work for us, especially when we’re trying to whip up an ultra-flavorful weeknight shrimp curry.
Some recipes call for curry powder, which is a different thing altogether. Curry powders are often used in dishes from the Indian subcontinent, as well as some British dishes, and are typically aromatic combinations of many, many dried spices blended together. Sometimes you’ll see generically labeled “curry powders,” which could contain just about anything, but a lot of times they’re more specialized, with specific names that can indicate what is in them and how they’re used—”chaat masala,” for instance, is a blend of spices, often containing dried mango powder, that is used for chaat, a popular Indian street food. We love the warming complexity that garam masala (a blend that typically contains cumin, cardamom, turmeric, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon) lends to our favorite homemade chicken tikka masala. Curry powders can be used in all kinds of ways—in marinades, as spice rubs for meat, as the aromatic base for a sauce or stew, or simply as a finishing sprinkle—but in all cases lend big depth and complexity in a compact, easy to store, and quick to deploy format.
Curry Roux Cubes
Japanese curries, on the other hand, tend to rely on curry roux cubes. These cubes of flavor are similar to bouillon, concentrated hits of spices and umami that releases when mixed with a liquid. These cubes are milder in flavor and sweeter than either of the previously discussed curry bases and tend to produce a thicker sauce (thanks to thickeners like corn starch or flour). Dishes like kare raisu (rice with Japanese curry) and katsu kare (thin, fried pork or chicken with Japanese curry) are almost always made from a box of Japanese curry roux.
Wait, What About Curry Leaves?
Chances are you’ve never come across fresh curry leaves in your local grocery store, but we figured we’d bring it up in the interest of thoroughness. Curry leaves are green and glossy, almost like bay leaves, but with tons of bright, addictive, aromatic flavor—bitter and sweet at the same time, almost citrusy. They’re often used in Indian cooking, and are sometimes dried and blended into curry powders. It’s an ingredient that’s a bit of a reach for most of our readers, and we don’t cook with them often, but the important thing to know is that they cannot be substituted for any of the curries we explained previously; they’re a different thing entirely.