Curry powder is the best-known spice mixture used by American and European cooks to add a taste of the exotic. It's used similarly in South China and for an occasional "curried" dish in Japan.
Many people have assumed, probably because it's so standardized, that curry powder is a single spice rather than a mixture, and that when Indians make a "curry" they toss in some of this stuff like we do.
Indians do use some spice mixtures but curry powder isn't one of them. Although its origins are unclear, curry powder is thought to have been packaged initially for the English so that an instant taste of India was as near as the spice shelf. For those who did a stint in India, this pungent yellow mixture was like a memory.
Curry powder isn't the only such mixture. "Five spices," which may be any combination of six or seven spices, could be called the curry powder of South China except that, unlike the Indians, the Chinese do use this mixture. It is a holdover from when medicinal concerns were as important to the Chinese as culinary concerns. The number five had symbolic power and could thus ensure the mixture's healthfulness.
North Africans use a warming mixture of spices called ras-el-hanout, which may contain up to 100 different spices. The Japanese, not known for spicy cooking, use shichimi, a mixture of seven flavorings, a couple of which are true spices. In France quatre-e'pices (four spices) is used to season sausages and other charcuterie. Here we use chili powder, logically enough, to make chili.
The problem with most of these mixtures is that like the spices themselves, they're best freshly ground. Also it's common for some packagers to use inferior spices since they know consumers are purchasing a shortcut to begin with and may not be as concerned with quality as someone who buys a whole spice with the intention of grinding it at home.
Needless to say, where possible, grind these mixtures yourself or at the least purchase them from a dealer who does a brisk business. Spice dealers who have both a wholesale and retail trade, or Indian, Middle Eastern or southeast Asian food stores are much more likely than gourmet shops to carry fresh spices.
The most popular spice mixtures are:
Curry Powder: Turmeric makes it yellow and any number of other spices may be added, most commonly coriander seeds, cumin, chili peppers, cloves, cinnamon, etc. In India cooks grind them just before cooking, and the spices used vary according to the dish. The thought of tossing in some tired powder would be abhorrent.
Garam Masala: Sometimes called "hot spices," this blend of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, black pepper and cloves is sprinkled over dishes by Northern Indian cooks who either grind their own or buy in small quantities from dealers. It may be purchased at Indian spice shops.
Five Spices: Not always the same five spices, this seasoning is used by southern Chinese with roasted meats and poultry. It is excellent sprinkled with salt and pepper over a chicken to be roasted. Available in all Chinese food stores, it most commonly contains star anise, fennel seed, cinnamon, cloves, licorice root, sichuan peppercorns and sometimes ground ginger.
Shichimi: Also "seven spices" or more accurately "seven flavors," this contains a Japanese relative of the sichuan peppercorn called sansho, ground dried chili pepper, dried orange peel, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, black hemp seeds and bits of seaweed. Available in Japanese food stores, it's sprinkled over udon noodles, soups and a variety of other dishes.
Chili Powder: Contains ground cumin, ground dried chili pepper, dried oregano and garlic powder. I would say that cooks making chili would be far better off using fresh garlic, grinding their own cumin and chilies, and adding either fresh or a good quality dried oregano. RECIPE SAND BEEF (4 servings)
This spicy, clean-tasting Chinese dish is excellent with rice and a salad.
1 pound flank steak
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh chili peppers, red or green
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 scallion, finely chopped
Peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon water or broth mixed with 1 tablespoon dry sherry
Cut the flank steak as thinly as possible across the grain. Place the slices in a mixing bowl and add the cornstarch, soy sauce and sesame oil, and stir to blend well.
Combine the chili peppers, shallots and scallion, and set aside.
Heat 1 cup of oil to near smoking in a wok or heavy sauce pan. Turn off the heat and add the beef. Stir to separate the slices. When the meat has begun to change color -- some of it will be pink -- remove it to a colander to drain. (You may have to turn on the heat briefly to cook the meat, though it shouldn't be fully cooked at this point.)
Turn the heat to high under a clean skillet or wok. When hot, add 2 tablespoons oil and add the minced chili-pepper mixture. Add the salt and sugar, stir for 20 seconds, then add the curry powder. Stir until hot. Return the meat and add the water-sherry mixture. Cook, stirring until well blended and hot, about 30 seconds.