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Crisp and Fiery - Curry Pastes and Spice Blends

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Curry Pastes and Spice Blends

The Tamil word kari, meaning “sauce,” is said to be the origin of the word “curry.” It means different things to different people across the vast continent of Asia. Many curries contain chiles, either fresh or dried; however, it was only after the Portuguese had travelled to South America in the 16th century that chiles were introduced to Southeast and South Asia. Before this, black and white pepper were used to create the heat in dishes, along with ingredients such as raw ginger and garlic.

A burgeoning spice trade

Trade in spices has existed between Europe and the East for many centuries. Cooks in the Roman Empire used to grind black pepper, ginger, and cumin that came in on the silk roads from Asia. In the crusades of the 11th century onward, the European clash with the Arab, Persian, and Middle Eastern cultures intensified, and led to a marked increase in the quantity of spices that could be exported. Conquest, religion, trade, and the migration of populations over many centuries have ensured that curries have traveled across Asia and beyond. It is the spices and spice combinations that make each curry from each region so unique.

“Conquest, religion, trade, and the migration of populations over many centuries have ensured that curries have travelled across Asia and beyond. It is the spices and spice combinations that make each curry from each region so unique.”

Spice blends and seasonings

Combinations and special blends of spices are myriad throughout Asia. They are at their best and most fragrant when ground to order from whole spices, then blended. Three particular blends found in Asian cuisine are India’s garam masala; five-spice powder, used in China and Vietnam; and Japanese seven-spice, or shichimi togarashi.

India’s garam masala is a blend of as many as 15 spices and is used in scores of dishes from curries to chutneys. The word garam means “hot,” and garam masala is often used instead of chile. It usually features black pepper, cumin, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace. Households and spice merchants each have their own special recipes. I highly recommend buying an electric coffee grinder and making your own.

Used in China and Vietnam, five-spice powder has both medicinal and culinary importance. Usually a blend of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, and Sichuan pepper, its distinctive aroma conjures up images of vibrant markets and delicious food.

A delicious Japanese blend of seasonings, shichimi togarashi, or Japanese seven-spice, contains dried chile flakes and sansho pepper, which is ground from the dried berries of a Japanese variety of prickly ash. Added to the mix are dried mandarin orange zest, black hemp seeds, white sesame seeds, white poppy seeds, and nori (seaweed) flakes.

Thai curry pastes

In Thailand, chopping, grinding, and pounding fresh herbs and spices to form smooth, pungent pastes are the foundations of curry. These curry pastes are known as kaeng. Recipes and categories vary from region to region—sour, hot, dry, forest, mountain, or coastal, as well as yellow and massaman (which originated in Persia). Red curry paste, or kaeng daeng (red curry) or kaeng phe (hot curry), is often used as a spicy base for other curries. Thai green curry paste, or kaeng kwio waan, gets its heat from green chiles and can vary in intensity. It is generally more fragrant than red curry paste, using lots of lemongrass, lime leaves, and coriander roots, which are pounded together.

When it comes to cooking, there should be a balance of hot from chile; sweet from coconut cream and palm sugar; sour from lemongrass, lime leaves, fresh lime juice, and tamarind juice; and salty from fish or soy sauce.

Curry leaves

The leaves of the small tree Murraya koenigii (native to South and Southeast Asia) are used throughout southern India, Sri Lanka, and northern Thailand, as well as parts of Malaysia and in some Indonesian cooking. Curry leaves are best used fresh, but can be used dried if you cannot find fresh ones. Fresh curry leaves can be bought and stored in the freezer until needed. They impart a nutty, bitter taste to dishes, and smell of curry. Similarly to bay leaves, they are used for their flavor and aroma, but not eaten.

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