For most Americans, the word "curry" evokes visions of a spicy meat-and-vegetable stew, redolent of that greenish-yellow spice found in bottles on supermarket shelves. To any classic Indian cook, "curry" is a word with an entirely different meaning.
"To me, the word 'curry' is as degrading to India's great cuisine as the term 'chop suey' is to China's," writes Madhur Jaffrey, renowned Indian cooking authority, in the introduction of "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" (Vintage Books, 1973).
"Curry is just a vague inaccurate word which the world has picked up from the British who, in turn, got it mistakenly from us. It seems to mean different things to different people. In America, it can either mean Indian food or curry powder. To add to this confusion, Indians writing or speaking in English use the word themselves to distinguish dishes with a sauce, i.e., stewlike dishes.
"Of course," Jaffrey adds, "when Indians speak their own language, they never use the word at all, instead identifying each dish by its own name."
Julie Sahni, another distinguished Indian cooking authority and author of the newly published "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking" (William Morrow, $22.50), agrees.
"An Indian would never call any dish curry," Sahni says. "Only a middle-class English-influenced person would use it, and he would be showing off his western connections." Indian cooks do make stews and casseroles, but these dishes are more correctly called "salan," which means spicy gravy.
In a telephone interview recently from her New York home, Sahni explained what "curry means in the Indian sense of the word." In India, "curry" is the western pronunciation of the word "kari"; this could mean the leaves of a sweet, aromatic plant that is used in certain stews, or it could refer to a stir-frying technique used for vegetables in southern India. The spice blend that is frequently used to season these vegetables is called "kari podi," or curry powder. And it's not just one spice but a blending of turmeric, red pepper, coriander, black pepper, cumin, fenugreek, kari leaves, mustard seeds and sometimes cinnamon and cloves.
Sahni claims that British merchants in India probably invented the version of stewlike curries known to most Americans, when they indiscriminately sprinkled curry powder over stews and casseroles for additional flavor. And it was the English-speaking middle class who adopted this term, renaming their classic stews "curry" rather than "salan." Salans or stews were first developed during the Moghul period in India, about the 16th century, and they were made with braised meats in a whitish sauce. According to Sahni, they were mellow and light, and enriched with milk, yogurt and cream.
The closest ingredient to curry powder used by Indian cooks is a mixture of spices known as "garam masala." This spice blend varies with each cook but might include cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, coriander, fennel and cumin. Garam masala is commonly added at the end of the preparation of a dish, but sometimes it is added at the beginning or midway through the cooking.
Sahni recommends roasting the spices until fragrant, and storing them (for optimum storage, she suggests keeping the spice bottles in a cool, dry place, away from the kitchen). Then, just before use, she likes to grind them to a powder.
When preparing either a classic salan or an Amerianized curry, rice is the most suitable accompaniment, but any of the traditional Indian breads, such as "chapati" (baked whole flat bread), "poori" (deep-fried puffy bread) or "paranthas" (whole wheat flaky bread) are excellent served as staple dishes. In addition, a chutney, pickle or salad side dish (or a combination of the three) would also be appropriate.
The following "curries" and "salan" dishes are designed to pleaseboth Indian and American palates. JULIE SAHNI'S CURRY POWDER
MASTER RECIPE (Makes 1 cup)
1 1/2 cups coriander seeds
15 dry red chili pods (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
15 to 20 curry leaves, dry or fresh (optional)
3 tablespoons turmeric powder
* Mix the coriander, chili pods, cumin, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and peppercorns in the container of an electric blender or spice mill and grind the spices to a fine powder in several batches. Pour into a bowl and combine well.
If you are using fresh curry leaves, dry them briefly (about 4 to 5 minutes) in an ungreased frying pan over low heat. Grind them in the blender and then add them to the spice powder in the bowl.
Stir in the turmeric.
Transfer the curry powder to an airtight jar, cover tightly and store in a cool place for up to 3 months.
*For mild-tasting curry powder, reduce or eliminate chili pods.
From "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking," by Julie Sahni (Morrow, 1985) JULIE SAHNI'S CURRIED AVOCADO WITH GINGER AND FRESH CHILIES (4 servings)
1 large ripe avocado
Juice of 1 lime or 1 small lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander
8 curry ("kari") leaves, fresh or dry (optional)
Coarse salt to taste
FOR THE SPICE-PERFUMED BUTTER:
1 tablespoon coconut oil, light sesame oil or light vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon Curry Powder Master Recipe (see recipe above)
2 to 4 hot green chilies, minced
Cut the avocado in half. Remove the seed and scoop out the pulp with a spoon. Chop the pulp roughly. Blend in the lime juice, coriander, curry leaves (if using) and salt. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the mustard seeds. Keep a pot lid handy, as the seeds may spatter and fly all over. When the spattering stops, add the garlic and let sizzle for 5 seconds. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until limp (about 3 minutes). Add the curry powder and chilies, mix, and continue cooking for 1 more minute. Add the avocado mixture and turn off the heat. Stir to mix all the ingredients. Serve at room temperature.
From "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking," by Julie Sahni (Morrow, 1985) SPICY SHRIMP CURRY (6 servings)
* 2 pounds raw, shelled medium shrimp
3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
FOR THE SEASONINGS:
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 cup coarsely chopped onions
3 to 4 dried red chili peppers
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 pound zucchini, ends trimmed, cut to 1/2-inch dices
4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 cup fresh coconut milk, or 2 tablespoons cream of coconut mixed with 1 cup boiling water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons minced scallions
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped coriander
* Using a large chef's knife, slice open each shrimp down the back to butterfly. Remove the vein, rinse lightly and drain thoroughly. Prepare the seasonings by adding to a blender or a food processor fitted with a steel blade the garlic, ginger, onions, dried chili peppers, turmeric, fennel seeds and cardamom, blending well after each addition.
In a large saute' pan or a frying pan, heat the oil until quite hot, add the seasonings and saute' several minutes, stirring constantly, until the onion is quite soft and transparent. Add the zucchini and tomatoes, and cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 to 9 minutes, until the mixture is thick and dry and the zucchini is tender. Add the shrimp and toss lightly, cooking until the shrimp changes color. Add the coconut milk and salt, and heat until just below boiling. Remove from the heat and add the minced scallions and coriander. Just before serving, stir the mixture. Serve immediately with rice. SPICY LAMB CURRY (6 servings)
2 pounds boned shoulder or leg of lamb
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
FOR THE SEASONINGS:
2 small fresh green chilies
4 slices fresh ginger, about 1/4-inch thick and the size of a quarter
1 tablespoon coriander
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons sweetened grated coconut
1/4 cup safflower or corn oil
2 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, blended until smooth
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh coriander (if unavailable, substitute scallion greens)
Trim the meat of any fat or gristle, and cut into cubes about 1/2-inch square. Place the lamb pieces in a bowl, add the minced garlic and cumin, toss lightly and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
In a blender or a food processor fitted with a steel blade, mince the chilies, adding the ginger, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and coconut, mincing well after each addition.
In a 3-quart casserole with lid, heat the oil until very hot. Add half of the lamb and brown on all sides over high heat. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain and fry the remaining lamb. Remove and drain.
Reheat the oil, and add the minced seasonings and the onion. Saute' over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until soft and transparent. Add the water and yogurt, and mix to blend. Add the lamb pieces, then partially cover and simmer for 1 hour, until tender and the sauce has reduced. Add the salt and mix. Just before serving, add the coriander, and mix. Transfer to a serving dish and serve with rice.