Everything I Know About Curry Pt. 1

Mar 29, 2019 | Cooking Tips

The term “curry’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It all depends on where you’re from in the world. Growing up in rural eastern Canada curry meant spice. It meant heat and mystery. Curry wasn’t so much a part of food as it was the representation of some far off land that I could never understand. Fair to say that I never really had curry growing up.

As I grew up, moved away from home and started working in restaurants, I discovered that to some, curry just means stew or sauce. To others it’s a specific spice paste that get’s added to stir-fries and soups. What I didn’t realize growing up is that curry isn’t one thing. It isn’t just some yellow spice blend that you buy from the grocery store. It is so much more than that.

Curry Powder

Curry powder, as we know it, is not Indian at all but rather British. In old english, curry simply means to cook. “The Forme of Cury” is a 14th century British cook book that I assure you has nothing to do with Indian food.

Curry powder actually comes out of British colonization. People returning home from India in the 18th century wanted an approximation of the food they had been eating while abroad.

Some enterprising spice merchant saw a market blossoming and came up with the idea of creating an “Indian” spice blend. This blend could be added to anything to get the flavours of India. Whoever this person was kept things simple and went with the name curry powder, or… cooking powder.

There are a few other versions of this story, but I find them slightly less practical and so I haven’t included them here.

Curry Varieties

Although we often associate curry specifically with India, there are many countries that have their own indigenous versions of curry. Thailand is one very well know example. The majority of Asia has their own types and styles of curry that are very different from anything you would find in India.

In all honesty it would be impossible to talk about all of the forms of curry in one single post. So, today we are going to focus mainly on Indian curries. I promise you, even this is way too much for one post. Having said that, I am going to jam as much information in here as I can.

Chili Peppers

It is important to note that we often associate curry with spicy, hot food. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very hot curries. However, curry has existed in India for at least 4500 years. Probably much longer. Chilies were only introduced to India in the 16th century.

I think it is obvious to say that 500 years is more than enough time for a cuisine to adopt a new ingredient. It goes without saying that Indian cuisine has full heartily adopted the chili. However, the point I am trying to make is that there are thousands of years of curry history, that don’t include chili. So, liking heat, is a not a prerequisite to liking curry. It helps. But, it isn’t necessary.

I would say, based on my experience, and I may be wrong, that there are more curry dishes that aren’t hot than ones that are. But, that is also subjective and comes down to your tolerance to spice.

The Basis of Curry

Giving you a road map to making all curries is impossible. Within India there are hundreds, if not thousands of very specific curry dishes. All of these dishes have hundreds of regional variations. That is hundreds of thousands if not millions of individual dishes. Not really that surprising for a country with 1.3 billion people.

What I can do is give you a place to start. A jumping off point that will throw you head first into the wonderful world of curry. Let’s get into it.

The foundation

Pretty much every great cuisine in the world has three ingredients that are used to build the base flavours of that cuisine. In French cooking it is mire poix. Two parts onion to one part each carrot and celery. In Spanish, Portuguese, and a lot of Italian cooking it is sofrito. Which varies depending on the region but usually consists of onion, garlic, and bell peppers. In Indian cuisine it is onion, garlic, and ginger.

Very often a paste will be made with onion, garlic and ginger which will be used in abundance to build the initial flavour profile of a curry. For this I usually follow a similar ratio as I would for French mire poix. Two parts onion, to one part each ginger and garlic. This is ground to a paste and stir-fried or sautéed in oil before other ingredients are added.


Three very common spices in curries are cumin, turmeric, and coriander. Beginning with these three as base is a great start. Adding other spices to these will create more specific dishes and recipes.

Other spices often used include fenugreek (either ground seeds or leaves), cardamom, ground mustard, pepper, chili, curry leaves (from the curry tree), star anise, bay leaf, cinnamon, and clove just to name a few.

A really good spice blend that you can buy as kind of an all purpose is garam masala. This is a blend of pepper corns, coriander, cumin, star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Often other spices as well. It’s really good for dipping your toe into the world of curry without spending a bunch to stock all the individual spices.

Which spices you use and how much of each really depends on what your cooking. Generally, I always say when making curry is to add as much of each spice you are using as you think you need to. Then go back and double it.

The thing that confuses a lot of western cooks and eaters about curry is that it is not subtle. There is no playing coy with Indian flavours. They are big and bold and they are meant to be. That’s one of the many beauties of the cuisine. And so, that is why I say to put in as much spice as you think you need and then double it. It’s because western cooking is largely about delicate subtle flavours and restraint. This mindset often leaves western cooks, home or professional, with flat, bland tasting curry. Be bold with it.

Cooking Spices

Another thing that kind of differentiates the use of spice from western cooking and Indian cooking is how the spice is used. In western cooking spices will often be added once liquid has already been added to a dish. In Indian cooking, some or all of the spices will be cooked briefly in oil with the onion, ginger and garlic. This “opens” the spices. The heat and the oil causes them to release their essential oils which flavours the dish. This also changes their flavours.

Care must be taken when cooking the spices in oil like this as they will burn quickly. Only a minute or two over moderate heat is all that is needed. Really, once they become aromatic, you can really start to smell them, they are ready. At this point another ingredient, often a liquid would be added to stop that cooking process.

Because this all happens so quickly it’s always best to have all of your ingredients ready to go before you start cooking. Have all of your spices measured out and in one bowl so they can all go into the pan at once (if they are supposed to). Have your liquid ready. Just have everything ready.

Spices can be added at different times throughout the cooking process to achieve different flavours but that is a little too advanced for today’s post. I will talk about that in a future post.


Liquids used in curries can be as varied as the curry itself. Water, stock, cream, coconut milk, tamarind juice, or just about anything else can be used. It really comes down to your desired result and the curry you are making.

For lighter curries use water or stock. For heavier curries use cream or coconut milk. You can also use a combination of stock and coconut milk etc.


First of all I think I am going to have to eventually do a second part to this post. Because there is some much more to cover that I just don’t have time to get into today.

I do hope that by reading this you have a much better understanding of what a curry is and how to make it. Having said that, the only real way to learn is by doing. So, plan out a curry. Find a recipe you like and make it keeping all the principles I talked about here in mind.

Indian cooking, like anything takes time and practice to get good at, but it’s worth the effort. This isn’t just because then you will know how to make curry. It’s because the things you learn while making curry can be applied to all of your cooking and will make you a better over all cook.



  1. Everything I Know About Curry Pt. 2 – How To Not Burn Sh!t - […] be able to cover all I want to cover in two posts, but we’ll see. If you haven’t read…

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