And then there is the spice, curry powder, which I think is what I was being asked about.
Curry powder is not just "a" spice, but a blend of spices.
The curry powder you find in the spice section of your local mainstream grocery store is a standardization as a result of mass export of the spice blend in the 19th and 20th centuries. The way Westerners think of curry and curry powder is our own invention as a result of the British occupation of India.
Curries and curry powders are found throughout South Asia and differ from country to country, region to region, and household to household, but are most often associated with India. In the north of India the powder is called garam masalam and in the south, sambar. The word curry is considered a corruption of "kari", a Tamil word meaning sauce with cooked vegetable or meat.
Curry powder blends are fragrant and delicate, best made in a small quantity right before preparing the dish in which it will be used. Different recipes may require different blends of spices. The spice blends often become highly personalized, tweaked by individual cooks to suit their, and their families, tastes. Like family recipes in many cultures these spice blends get passed on through generations.
Spices most commonly used in creating curry powders are turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, red pepper, ginger, garlic, asafoetida, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper. As you can see, you may already have the majority of these residing in your spice and herb collection.
While I've made a few Indian dishes over the years I've never seriously explored the cuisine until recently. I've loved eating it, just never cooked it much. It's the perfect cuisine for using the plethora of summer vegetables in endless ways that never become tiresome. Even (oh please, no more) zucchini takes on new life and becomes tasty again when given a South Asian twist! I recommend starting out with Madhur Jaffrey as a guide for the novice exploring Indian and South Asian cookery. She makes these cuisines as accessible as Julia Child did French cooking.
Curry Powder Blend adapted from Madhur Jaffrey
Makes about 6 tablespoons
2 Tbls. whole coriander seeds
1 Tbls. whole cumin seeds
2 tsp. whole peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp. whole brown mustard seeds
3 to 4 whole cloves
3 hot dried red chilies, crumbled
1 tsp. whole fenugreek seeds
1 tsp. ground turmeric
Heat a small, heavy frying pan to a medium heat. Place the first 6 ingredients in the pan, stir and toast until lightly fragrant and the colors just begin to turn. Add the fenugreek and turmeric, give a quick stir, then pour the spices on to a plate to cool. When cooled grind finely in a clean coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, blender, or food processor.
This garam masalam is the recipe we used when I was cooking at the Valiant Trencherman. It makes a goodly amount of curry powder so you may want to cut the recipe in half for home use.
The Valiant Trencherman's Garam Masalam
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ cup peppercorns before grinding
¼ cup coriander seeds
3/8 teaspoon cinnamon powder
5 whole cloves
Heat a small, heavy frying pan to a medium heat. Place the whole spices in the pan, stir and toast until lightly fragrant and the colors just begin to turn. Add the powdered spices, give a quick stir, then pour on to a plate to cool. When cooled grind finely in a clean coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, blender, or food processor.