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By Dave DeWitt
Ground Curry Spices in the Main Market, Delhi.
Photo by Victor Paul Borg.
The Debate Over Commercial Curry Preparations
Many purists abhor commercial curry powders. "They are anathema to Indian cooking," wrote Dharamjit Singh, author of Indian Cookery, "prepared for imaginary palates, having neither the delicacy nor the perfume of flowers and sweet-smelling herbs, nor the savour and taste of genuine aromatics." He added: "Curry powders often contain inferior spices which with age become acrid and medicinal in taste. They not only mask the natural taste of foods, but lend a weary sameness to everything with which they are used."
Pat Chapman, the U.K.'s "King of Curries," notes another drawback to commercial powders. "The manufacturers," he writes, "often put in too much chile and salt, and in some cases, chemical colorings and preservatives. Undeclared additives can include husks and stalks, and other adulterations." (In India, salt is added to curry powder to inhibit the formation of mold.) Noted author and curry lover Elizabeth David also turned her nose up at prepared curry powders. "To me they are unlikeable," she wrote, "harshly flavored, and possessed of an aroma clinging and all-pervading in its way as English boiled cabbage or cauliflower. Too much hot red pepper, too much low-grade ginger, too much mustard seed and fenugreek...."
Juel Anderson, author of The Curry Primer, has pointed out: "Through time, commercial spice mixtures have become so uniform a blend that most of us know curries only as yellow-colored foods with a standard aroma, often peppery-hot and as predictable in flavor as a Big Mac." Indeed, there is a sameness to commercial curry powders, especially those made in the United States to the 1977 USDA standards for curry powder, which calls for the following percentages of spices: coriander, 36; turmeric, 28; cumin, 10; fenugreek, 10; white pepper, 5; allspice, 4; mustard, 3; red pepper, 2; and ginger, 2. However, I should point out that there are many imported curry powders, especially from India, which vary in flavor considerably because they contain a wider variety of spices used in many different percentages. Here is a selection of prepared curry powders:
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Commercial curry powders are basically convenience condiments and should be treated that way. Cookbook author John Philips Cranwell suggests three reasons for using commercial curry preparations: they produce a uniform result with a given recipe; the individual spices necessary to make a certain curry may not be available at a given time; and buying commercial curry preparations saves kitchen time and work. I believe that common sense must prevail. It may be true, Singh suggests, that: "Once you have tried [separate spices] you will no more use the packaged curry powder than you would accept another person's taste in the choice of your clothes." But, on the other hand, is it considered bad taste to use a packaged Sri Lankan curry paste if the cook has run out of some of the necessary ingredients to prepare a fresh curry paste? Or, if fresh lemongrass is not immediately available for a Thai curry, should the cook substitute powdered lemon grass, or use a bolleled curry paste containing fresh lemongrass? These are decisions only the cook can make, and there will certainly be times when convenience will triumph over authenticity. Here is a selection of bottled curry pastes--red, green, and yellow.
My recommendation is that, whenever possible, cooks should follow the recipes in this series and use freshly ground or mixed ingredients for the curries. Prepared powders and other products can be a backup for cooks lacking the time or certain essential ingredients, but cooks should, whenever possible, avoid the cheap American-made curry powders.
Generally speaking, the commercial curry preparations fall into the following categories. Massalas are spice blends that usually lack turmeric and chiles. Curry powders contain turmeric (the yellower the powder, the more turmeric it contains), and a large percentage of coriander. Curry pastes are sealed, moist blends of herbs, spices, and other ingredients such as coconut, onions, fresh chiles, and ginger. They are imported from India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Curry sauces are available either in bottles or in mixes, and are used as marinades or to make an "instant" curry gravy for meats. Curry oils are vegetable oils steeped in curry spices, and they are generally used as a condiment to add a curry flavor to prepared foods.