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The Curry Question

Ask an Indian cook how to make chicken curry. You won't get the same answer twice.

By Monica Bhide
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 20, 2004; Page F01

The first e-mail made me smile. As a writer focusing on Indian food, I often receive notes from people requesting recipes. But this e-mailer wanted the recipe for chicken curry. Over the years, many similar e-mails have followed. In fact, it's the recipe that's most requested of me. And still I smile. Imagine asking a cook from the United States for the recipe for barbecue? Would that be barbecue from Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee or Kansas City, just for starters?

Just as many states, regions and sub-regions in the United States have their own version of barbecue, every state and sub-region of India has its own version of chicken curry -- which translates literally to "chicken in a spiced sauce."

Ellicott City resident Rashme Dhar uses yogurt, ginger and fennel powder in her chicken curry. (Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post)

Ingredients That Count

The following ingredients are common to many curry recipes. They can be found at Indian grocery stores, some specialty stores and at online spice purveyors, such as www.namaste.com, www.whitejasmine.com and www.penzeys.com.

GARAM MASALA (gah-RAHM mah-SAH-lah) An Indian spice blend with a warm, earthy flavor. Ingredients vary but may include black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger and nutmeg. Recipes for it are in every Indian cookbook.

TURMERIC (TER-muh-rihk) A potent coloring agent that imparts its yellowish color to curries and other spice blends.

CURRY POWDER An Indian spice blend that ranges from mild to hot. Curry powder labeled "Madras" tends to be quite hot. Ingredients vary but may include cardamom, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, fenugreek, nutmeg, pepper, saffron and turmeric.

GREEN CARDAMOM PODS (KAR-duh-muhm) A member of the ginger family with an intensely warm, sweet flavor. Often called the Queen of Spices. The pods, containing black seeds, are used whole or ground. (Shy away from buying ground cardamom; it is best to grind it fresh.) Some stores carry white cardamom, which is a bleached version of green cardamom.

BLACK CARDAMOM PODS Less common than green cardamom. A more earthy, woodsy flavor. The pods are used whole to flavor a dish and are generally removed prior to serving.

TAMARIND (TAM-uh-rihnd) The exceptionally tart fruit of the tamarind pod. Used as a souring agent. Commonly available in a thick paste or concentrate.

Home to more than a billion people, speaking more than a dozen languages and of hugely different ethnicities, India has at least 35 recognized cuisines. Each cuisine is greatly influenced by local ingredients, geography, history and religion. The cuisines of the eastern shores of India, for instance, rely heavily on mustard as the region is blessed with flowing yellow mustard fields. The coastal south, thick with coconut palms, uses coconut milk, grated coconut and even coconut oil in its cuisines.

In addition, throughout history, foreign rulers brought in varied styles of cooking, and traders brought ingredients that also influenced local cuisines. Religion, too, plays a significant part, often dictating what can and cannot be eaten and even guiding methods of food preparation. But so do individual families. The techniques used to prepare the dishes and even the spice blends are unique to the specific regions and many times even to the families within the regions. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the preparation of the ubiquitous chicken curry.

So just for a taste of this diversity and variety, I set out to discover how Indian Americans, living in the Washington area, prepare chicken curry.

I randomly contacted Indian people through the phone book, Indian organizations, the online food community eGullet.com and through friends. I asked them a simple question: How do you make chicken curry?

Two of the recipes below had been handed down from grandparents or great-grandparents. But the responses revealed more. Over the years, their recipes have taken on the identity of the people who cook them -- more so than they reflect the region of their origin. With changes such as the use of pre-made spice mixes and canned tomatoes, the trend toward healthier ingredients like spinach and the choice of alternative meats, these recipes show another kind of evolution.

A story I heard a few years ago sums it up best. A husband says to his wife, "Honey, I love the way you bake ham. But why do you cut the end off? That is my most favorite part."

"My mother cooks it this way," she replies. "It's tradition."

Later she calls her mother. "Mom, why do we cut the end of the ham?"

The mother does not know.

She calls her mother-in-law, from whom she learned the recipe.

"Why do we cut the ends off, Mama?"

"Ah, that," says the 100-year-old mother-in-law. "When I first cooked a ham, I didn't have a pan big enough."

These recipes provide a mere window into a very diverse and complex nation. To point out the individual influences , each recipe is named for its contributor.

Binni's Bihari Chicken Curry

3 to 4 servings

To Binni Chadda, 27, an epidemiologist from Germantown, chicken curry is the recipe made by her grandmother. Her family is from the Indian state of Bihar, which is where Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment. Bihari food is simple yet flavorful. This family favorite has been modified to include spinach "to make sure you get your veggies in one pot."

Serve this chicken curry traditionally as Chadda's grandmother did, with steamed basmati rice, or as Chadda does, with whole wheat chappaties -- Indian griddle bread, available in the freezer section at your local Indian grocer.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 small red onions, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons peeled and grated ginger root

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