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Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Curry Powder

by Sandra Bowens

Turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom....sound like Latin to you?  Or do they remind you of Indian food? These exotic spices are components of curry powder.  Along with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, dill seed, cloves, fennel seed, mustard, nutmeg, the list could go on and on.  Some curry powders are made up of as many as 30 herbs and spices while others may be as simple as four or five ingredients.  The average blend combines 15.


Although we associate it so closely with Indian food, curry is an English invention. In fact, Madhur Jaffrey uses the word exactly once in her 2002 book, Indian Cooking. But if we flashback to the early 1800's, we begin to understand.


The spice trade created large trading centers in different parts of India. Englishmen with the East India Company moved in along with their wives and 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers to maintain order. The British were running factories and partaking in all manner of trade. Their enjoyment of the local foods ensued but they didn't really understand it. Whereas, the Indians chose to grind spices as needed, carefully selecting different flavors for different dishes, the British could not see these subtleties. They called all of the food "curry."


As they traveled back home a certain dish evolved into what we now consider a curry. This is often stir-fried vegetables in a yellow gravy served with rice, preferably Basmati, and an assortment of condiments such as chutney, coconut, raisins and nuts.


The first commercial curry mix came onto the market in Britain in 1850. Before that, cooks had been preparing their own. Between 1820 and 1840, turmeric exports into England tripled from 8678 pounds to 26,468.


Curry powder is often thought of as hot and spicy but, because of the various recipes, some are more mild.  Since typical ingredients are the fragrant spices, it is highly aromatic with a warm, bitter taste.  The common yellow color is derived from turmeric, the primary ingredient.  If you like your curries hot look for Madras curry powder.


True curry powder aficionados will make their own, buying the spices whole and grinding them in either a spice grinder or coffee grinder.  If you aren’t that dedicated, experiment with different brands, they vary wildly, until you find one you really like.  Be sure to store curry powder in a dark, glass jar since turmeric will discolor when exposed to light and it has been known to “melt” plastic containers.


As a general rule you will get the most flavor from curry powder by frying it for 30 seconds or so in oil and/or butter (ghee is traditional in India). Don't let this stop you, however, from using it to season all sorts of dishes. Curry is excellent with eggs. It's an exciting addition to chicken salad and will breathe new life in familiar soup recipes.



Curried Sea Bass in Paper

Parchment paper used in this recipe can be found in most supermarkets. In a pinch, foil may be used with less dramatic results.


Oil for preparing parchment paper

1 cup spinach leaves, washed and stemmed

12 ounces to  1 pound Chilean sea bass fillet, cut into two portions (see note below)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 small tomato, cored and sliced thin


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.


Cut two sheets of parchment paper measuring approximately 18x15 inches each. Fold each sheet in half and cut out a large half heart so that you have a heart shaped piece of parchment when you open it. Place on a baking sheet so that half of each heart is resting on the sheet. Brush the center of each half lightly with olive oil.


Divide the spinach leaves between the two pieces of parchment, arranging in a layer on the oiled center. Season the fish with salt and pepper and then rub 1 teaspoon of the curry powder over all sides of each fish fillet. Place the fish on top of the spinach bed. Arrange the tomato slices so that they overlap atop the fish fillets.


To seal the package, fold the other half of the parchment paper over the fish. Beginning at the rounded end, fold over about an inch of the edge and press down hard. Take the next inch, overlapping slightly and fold it over, moving around to the pointed end, creating a tight seal. Place baking sheet in oven and bake 10 minutes for each inch thickness of the fish.


To serve, place the unopened parchment packet onto the serving plate, snip a hole in the center to release some steam and allow each diner to tear into his or her own entree.


Makes 2 servings


NOTE: Sea bass is not so easy to find these days. Substitute halibut or any other firm fleshed white fish.




Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.

 A collection of over 100 recipes for making your own spice combinations gathered from spice shops and herb farms all over America.

Start with coriander, cumin, mustard, cayenne pepper, and turmeric, work a little magic and finish with more than fifty different, delicious Indian dishes.

Madhur Jaffrey, everybody's favorite Indian chef, shows us how to prepare authentic foods fast.

 The spice trade contributed in a big way to the exploration of the world. Find out how these local ingredients made their way around the globe.

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