April 1998 -- World Fare
By: Susheela Uhl
Curry blends are becoming "hot" because curry satisfies consumers' increasing appetite for healthful foods with spicier ingredients and stronger flavor profiles. The most critical concept for food product designers to understand is that "curry" represents many ingredient blends.
The English may have coined the term "curry" from the word "kari," which, in the South Indian Tamil language, means "sauce." Or the word may have evolved from the term "kari leaf," an herb used in cooking. Just as many different sauces exist in Western-style cooking, hundreds of curry blends exist as well.
Curry is thought to have originated in South India. Trade, colonization and immigration brought it to other parts of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, resulting in name variations: masala, gulai, gaeng, colombo or tagine. Generally, curries combine different spices, herbs (whole, ground or crushed), fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other ingredients. They differ in flavor and color, depending on who creates them, the types and proportions of ingredients used, their preparation, and the products in which they are used.
A typical Indian curry blend consists mostly of cumin, coriander, black or red pepper, and turmeric, with some other spices and herbs such as cardamom, clove or cinnamon. Garam masala, typically made in North India, usually lacks turmeric, but contains more clove, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg. South Indians often use curry leaves, toasted spices and mustard seeds. Malaysian Nonyas like tamarind, candlenuts and bird peppers; Thais use coconut milk, galangal and culantro roots; and Caribbeans create curry with habaneros, ground mustard, vinegar and squash.
Ingredient preparation and cooking methods create numerous flavor, texture and color profiles. Using ground or whole spices and cooking techniques such as dry-roasting, toasting, braising or sautéing gives different flavor dimensions. The order and time of ingredient addition is crucial in obtaining the desired flavor. The body of the curry is provided by the ginger, garlic, onions, potatoes, vegetables, nuts or seeds. The finished curry's consistency varies with type of dish or ethnic preference. It can be thick or thin, dry or wet.
Color is also an important sensory attribute of curry. Color is contributed by turmeric, saffron, paprika, green herbs (cilantro, basil, mint), certain vegetables, nuts or chile peppers. For example, a korma from North India is creamy brown with almonds and cardamom, while a Malay kurma is greenish brown with herbs and candlenuts.
Commercial curry blends come as powders, pastes, sauces or oils, offering convenience and consistency. They also come hot, medium or mild, depending on the chile pepper level. Food designers must take great care when using commercial curry blends. While they contain ingredients with mass appeal, such as cumin and turmeric, they often lack the flavor or enhancing effect required for the specific product. To create the authentic products that consumers demand, curries must include specific or specially prepared ingredients that enhance the flavor, texture and color profiles of fish, meat, poultry or vegetables.
Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons, a Mamaroneck, NY-based food consulting firm. She develops products (ethnic and fusion), provides information on spices and other flavorings, and gives presentations exploring culinary trends and the factors contributing to their emergence.