By Tom Havran
When I fix a great curry, I feel like I’m snuggling up to something warm, comforting and wholesomely good. The experience of fragrant spices, aromatic heat, and silky texture all combine to do more than simply satisfy my appetite; the effects of curry build to engulf all of my senses and nourish my whole being. If I’m feeling down, I turn to curry because it will give me an emotional lift. Curry is medicine that I love to take, a sort of gastro-therapy for my body, mind and spirit.
You can’t hurry love, nor can you hurry curry. It takes time to light this fire, and attention to detail before the dish can weave its complex culinary spell. Curry is a multilayered fusion of exotic spices, fresh aromatics and involved cooking techniques. Curry is born of a hands-on conjuring process that ultimately brings about a climax of sublime expression, proffered on a warm bed of pristine basmati or jasmine rice, with a side of pillowed flatbread.
If I wrote a book on this topic, I’d call it the Curry Sutra, and it would contain five steamy chapters. Here’s the brief for each:
1. Spices. SPICE is the spice of life! The seasoning line-ups, recipes and names for curries are as disparate as the preferences of the people that love them, resulting in an impossible-to-crack formula of match-making. There is no standard for a properly spiced curry, but most curries do share some fundamental DNA, having a core group of spices that includes earthy turmeric, smoky cumin, smoldering chili, lemony ginger and perhaps some nutty-floral coriander. After these, any combination from a long list of supporting spices gets involved in the affair: mustard, fenugreek, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, black pepper, celery seed, caraway and fennel. The common denominator is a complex diversity of aroma, flavor and heat, blended into a coherent and dazzling expression — similar to the way a fine wine, symphony or perfume would be realized.
2. Aromatics. Can curry have pheromones? Aromatics are fresh spices and vegetables, some of which like ginger and chilies, are also used in their dried form. Using both fresh and dried spices and aromatics begins to create the layers of flavor that are essential to good curry. Important fresh aromatics include ginger, garlic, red or green chilies, cilantro, onion, lemongrass, khafir lime, celery, carrots, lemon and lime.
3. Star ingredient. This is the featured attraction, the object of desire that the curry sauce dresses. It can be a vegetable such as cauliflower, a starch such as sweet potato, a meat or seafood protein such as shrimp, or a non-meat protein such as tofu. It’s important to note that the star ingredient is dressed, not drowned, obscured or overpowered by the curry. This is a relationship of mutual love and respect.
4. Technique. Practice, experience, creativity and instinct are the elements that define technique. They can be demonstrated, but not really taught until you dive in and go there yourself. Curry cooking techniques often start with dry roasting and grinding, or oil frying and grinding, of spices and aromatics. Aromatics are often sautéed, roasted, and fried in oil or ghee, then processed into a paste. Proteins and vegetables are seared, roasted or steamed. Pan drippings and curry pastes are thickened with flour, and/or thinned with yogurt, coconut milk or broth into a delectable sauce.
5. Consummation. The complex aromas and dense flavors of curry need a somewhat neutral vehicle on which to relax, open up and release their magic to the senses. White jasmine or basmati rice is pretty much standard along with a flatbread for dipping and sopping up every last blissful drop.
What is my ideal curry date? A hot and spicy green coconut curry featuring fresh green chilies, lime, lemongrass and cilantro, served over seared springy tofu and al dente brown rice, paired with a dry but vibrant pinot grigio, and eaten in late February or early March, just when it feels like spring can’t get here fast enough. It’s the perfect meal to beat the last of the winter blues and waken my spirit to the coming season.
About the author: Tom is communicator of natural living for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brands. In other words, he’s a very imaginative copywriter. A local boy, raised on a farm just down the road from the company’s headquarters in Norway, Tom enjoys drawing, plant hoarding, cooking and living the simple life in the beautiful state of Iowa.