Sharing with you a homemade curry powder that's full of flavor and as authentic as possible has been on my to-do list for a while now. A big reason for this is I'm tired of seeing recipes for curry powder blends that look just like garam masala. Apparently, in the confusing discussion over where curry powder comes from and what it should be used for, this spice blend--with foggy origins but a bold flavor profile-- has lost its way.
What is curry?
"Curry" is a suffix added to a number of spicy Indian dishes that can be either dry or saucy.
The word can be loaded: it has been used in racial slurs against Indians abroad. It also tends to offend some Indian cooks who claim it is a colonial invention: a catchall used by the Portuguese and the British to describe any spicy, gravied Indian dish, and one that fails to capture the complexity of Indian cuisine.
There is some truth in all of that but for better or for worse the word has become firmly embedded in the culinary lexicon and is commonly used within and outside India to describe saucy, spicy dishes.
It might also not be fair to blame the generalization entirely on the colonizers. In the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu the word "kari" has long been a suffix for savory meat and vegetable side dishes. These can include both gravied and dry dishes, from a saucy kozhi kari or chicken curry to a stir-fried vendakka kari or okra curry.
The Portuguese and the British, likely relieved by the simplicity of the word "kari" in a land where words like "kuzhambu" and "kathirikkai" roll off local tongues with ease, readily adopted it, anglicized the spelling to "curry," and -- with an arrogance typical to colonizers -- used it to describe any spicy dish from anywhere in India.
Curry became a global food when Indian laborors, ferried by the British to other colonies, went on to create versions of it in foreign lands like Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius, Jamaica and Trinidad, among many others.
Whatever the origins of a curry, or the word, what really matters today when it comes to eating it is that it is usually delicious and especially good with rice or an Indian flatbread.
What is curry powder?
Curry powder is a strikingly yellow, all-purpose blend of spices that can be used to flavor Indian-style stews (called curries) and vegetable stir-fries. It has a very distinct flavor profile, quite unlike that of garam masala, the other popular Indian-style spice blend, made with warming spices like peppercorns, cinnamon and mace. Curry powder has a mix of some warming ingredients (like black peppercorns and red chili peppers) and some cooling ingredients (like fenugreek and turmeric), but it doesn't, and shouldn't, have other spices you'd typically find in garam masala like cardamom, cloves and mace.
Like curry, curry powder has its beginnings in colonial India. At the time, cooks in India blended up their own unique spice mixes and no one cooked with premade spice powders. According to some stories, savvy Indian traders created curry powder for Britons returning home and eager to bring with them a taste of their beloved Indian food. Others say Indian cooks in Britain created it to recreate the flavors of India in their restaurants.
Because the British had tamer tastebuds than Indians did, curry powder was milder and less spicy than garam masala. It is also highly likely that curry powder was inspired -- or created -- by south Indian cooks, because its ingredients very closely resemble those in south Indian spice blends like sambar powder and rasam powder. In fact, its flavor profile is best suited to foods with a south Indian flair.
There is a spicier version of curry powder, called "Madras curry powder," (Madras being the old name of Chennai, the largest city in and capital of Tamil Nadu), which has more red chili pepper added to it.
Just as they do with using the word "curry," some Indian cooks turn their noses up at curry powder because it lacks a clear Indian pedigree. But I have never been dogmatic when it comes to good food and curry powder is not only a spice blend I always have in my kitchen, it is one of my go-tos when I want a hearty and tasty Indian curry in a rush.
Mix it up and keep it in your pantry alongside a jar of garam masala and you'll always have two great reasons to cook Indian food.
Cooking with curry powder
Curry powder is not a substitute for garam masala. Here's a simple guide: if a curry you are making has a north Indian flavor profile (foods like chana masala, paneer butter masala or palak paneer) go with garam masala. If it has a south Indian flavor profile like this chickpea curry or this vegetable curry, or uses ingredients like coconut, curry leaves and tamarind, use curry powder.
You can add curry powder to stir-fried potatoes or eggplant and dals as well, and it will be wonderful.
Both curry powder and garam masala are already cooked because you roast the spices beforehand. That way you can add them toward the end of cooking and tweak the quantity to your taste.
As to how much curry powder (or garam masala or any spice blend) you should use in a recipe, a tablespoon or two is a good rule of thumb to follow. While I always specify how much of a spice blend to use in any recipe, don't be afraid to add more -- or less -- after tasting the dish.
Spice blends like curry powder don't just add flavor, though. They pack within them immense health benefits that can aid you in a journey toward better health. For that reason, in addition to the deliciousness they bring to food, it's a good idea to include them in your diet.
Ingredients for curry powder
- Coriander seeds: Coriander seeds, the seeds of the herb we call cilantro, add a fresh, lemony flavor to spice mixes. They have digestive benefits and are known to be antidiabetic and antioxidant.
- Fenugreek seeds (methi): Fenugreek seeds add a pleasant undertone of sweetness and bitterness to curry powder. These are health stars: they cool the body and are immensely beneficial for digestion as well. A simple home remedy in south India to treat the runs is to swallow a few fenugreek seeds with buttermilk. It always works. Fenugreek has many more health benefits, including lowering blood sugar.
- Cumin seeds: Cumin seeds add earthy, deep flavor to curry powder. They also help reduce cholesterol and aid in weight loss.
- Black mustard seeds: Mustard seeds add color and pungent and bitter notes that strengthen the flavor base in curry powder. They also have many health benefits, from fighting headaches to heart disease.
- Curry leaves: These are called "sweet neem" or "black neem" (from karuveppilai in Tamil) in south India, where they are predominantly used. Curry leaves have a pleasant but overpowering aroma and pungent flavor with a hint of citrus. The flavor profile of curry leaves is, however, very different from that of curry powder, which has many additional ingredients. So despite the similar sounding names you can't simply replace one with the other when you cook. Curry leaves are great antioxidants and they help with weight loss. They are the only "wet" ingredient in this blend (unless you use dry curry leaves, which is fine here). You will need to roast them dry with the other ingredients.
- Chana dal (Bengal gram lentils): Lentils act as a thickener in curries, and they also impart nutty flavor to balance out the strong spices. Everyone knows the health benefits of lentils, which are rich in fiber and protein and packed with good-for-you nutrients.
- Black peppercorns: Black peppercorns add wonderful, flavorful heat to spicy Indian dishes. They are great anti-inflammatories and might help fight high cholesterol and blood sugar.
- Dry red chili peppers: I use Kashmiri dry red chili peppers for this spice blend because they add lovely color, and I don't use too many--you can always add more chili pepper to your recipes if you want to, so it's best to keep the heat in spice mixes at a level most people can tolerate. Any dry red pepper you can find at an Indian store would work here, as would the Mexican arbol pepper. If using arbol, you might want to use less as it is spicier. Chili peppers reduce gut inflammation, speeding up the metabolism and promoting a stronger immune system, among many benefits.
- Turmeric: Turmeric, which gives curry powder its characteristic yellow color, needs no introduction or explanation, because it's an all-round star. I have a comprehensive post on cooking with turmeric, including its health benefits, which range from reducing inflammation and fighting viruses to fighting cancer and diabetes.
- Asafetida (hing): Asafetida is a resin that is usually sold in powdered form. It often confounds non-Indian cooks because of its strong, sulfurous smell and odd flavor. When cooked, the smell dissipates, leaving behind a wonderful umami. Indian cooks often add asafetida to meatless dishes for meaty flavor. But this resin is overwhelmingly used in Indian vegetarian cooking as well. Studies show that asafetida has many positive effects on health, from improving digestive health to fighting cancer.
- Ginger powder (optional): I find most commercial curry powder blends include ginger, but I am not a fan. Dry ginger has a powerful, almost overwhelming warmth, and as many Indian dishes call for adding ginger garlic paste, I find that having dry ginger in the curry powder too can be problematic. If you must, add two teaspoons of ground ginger to the skillet with the turmeric and the asafetida.
Tips and FAQs
Just under two cups, which should give you rougly 10-12 uses.
There are two powdered spices in this recipe, the turmeric and asafetida (and ginger if you use it), and it's okay to use those as they are. Some of the other spices in this blend are also likely already in your kitchen in powder form, like pepper, cumin, coriander and cayenne and if you're wondering if you can substitute those for the whole spices, I'd advise against it. That's because powdered spices have usually lost a good part of their flavor and fragrance, especially cumin and coriander. The spices in this blend also need to be roasted beforehand, so you'd be much better off using whole spices.
You can find all of the ingredients needed in this curry powder at any Indian store. If you don't have an Indian store nearby, you can get them online--Amazon is a good source for organic (and non-organic) versions of all Indian spices.
Fresh curry leaves can be a bit hard to source, especially if you don't have access to an Indian store. But you can find dry curry leaves online, and although this is an herb best used fresh in most dishes, the dry version is perfect for curry powder because you'd be drying the leaves in the pan when you roast the spices anyway.
At a pinch, leave them out and proceed with the other ingredients.
Like all spice blends, curry powder should be stored in an airtight jar, in a cool, dark place. You can also just put it in the refrigerator or the freezer. Stored correctly, a diy curry powder blended from whole spices at home should remain fresh and flavorful for at least a year and, if frozen, much longer.
How to make curry powder
- Gather your ingredients. You will roast most of the spices together and don't want to be running around to fetch an ingredient when the others are already roasting on the stove.
- Roast the whole spices and the curry leaves: Place all of the ingredients except the turmeric and asafetida--the two powdered spices--in a wide skillet and roast them over medium heat until they turn a few shades darker and are slightly reddish and the curry leaves are dry and papery. The spices should smell very fragrant. You don't want to leave the skillet unattended at any time; spices have oils in them and can burn, which would make them bitter.
- Add turmeric and asafetida (and ginger powder, if you're using it): Once the spices have roasted, turn off the heat. Add turmeric and asafetida to the skillet and stir it in so the spices roast in the residual heat. If the stove were to remain on when you add the turmeric and asafetida the powdered spices could burn.
- Remove the spices to a bowl or plate to cool. Your spices should cool down thoroughly before you blend them.
- Blend the spices: Place the cooled spices in the blender or in a spice grinder, working in batches if necessary. Blend to a coarse powder with no visible bits of the spices.
- Store in a cool, dry place: Store the curry powder in an airtight jar in a cool, dry spot. You can refrigerate or freeze the spice blend as well for a longer shelf life.
Recipes to make with curry powder
- Vegetable Curry
- Bombay Potatoes
- Roasted Delicata Squash
- Vegan Jamaican Curry with Tofu and Potatoes
- Golden Roasted Curry Mustard Potatoes
Curry Powder recipe
- ½ cup coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp cumin seeds
- 2 tbsp mustard seeds
- 2 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 24 curry leaves (about two sprigs)
- 4 dry red chili peppers (use less or more. I like to control the heat in my recipes so I used less than other recipes might)
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns
- ¼ cup chana dal (Bengal gram dal)
- 1 tsp asafetida (hing)
- 2 tbsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground ginger (optional)
- Heat a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Lower heat to medium-low and add all of the ingredients, except the asafetida and turmeric (and ginger, if using).
- Dry-roast the ingredients until the coriander seeds and lentils take on a reddish hue and are really fragrant, about five minutes. The curry leaves should be crispy and dry with no moisture, and should crumble easily when you touch them. If using dry curry leaves, do not add them with the other spices. Instead stir them in when you add the turmeric in the next step.
- Turn off the heat and stir the asafetida and the turmeric (and ginger, if using) into the other spices in the skillet. Mix well and remove all of the spices to a plate or bowl. Set them aside to cool.
- Once the spices have cooled down, place them in a blender or spice grinder. Blend into a powder that's coarse but does not have any whole or large pieces of spices.
- Store in an air-tight jar in a cool, dark place.