Forget everything you know about spices.
Forget that cinnamon and nutmeg are baking spices.
Forget that you think cayenne is spicy.
Forget about separating cooking spices from baking spices in your cabinet.
Forget it all.
Only then will you be open to all the possibilities.
That is curry.
For the next hour, Chef Victor Matthews went on to describe his unique culinary experiences, highlighting his time with a mentor who introduced him to the idea of forgetting all he knew in order to embrace curry—the most complex and misunderstood cooking in the world. This curry class was about exploration, from the first millennium BC to our kitchens today. His point was that India was a crossroads for the trade routes for centuries with access to every spice available, having thousands of years to experiment with each one. Comparatively, here in America our culinary experience is still in its infancy.
Maybe that is why curry seems so mysterious; it messes with what we’ve always known while introducing “alien” spice like turmeric, according to Chef Matthews. Alien because aside from its distinct color, the flavor is difficult to describe or compare. After imploring us to put aside any preconceived notions, he passed around jars of individual spices for us to simply take in their aroma and then describe in as much detail as possible. Some of the descriptions were quite diverse, these were just a few:
Cayenne — intense, sweet, subtly earthy
Turmeric — nothing familiar
Cumin — earthy, barnyardy
Cardamom — medicinal, hints of menthol
Coriander — floral, citrus
Cinnamon — harsh, almost caustic, slightly sweet, woodsy
Clove — sweet, woodsy, licorice notes
Nutmeg — harsh, slightly medicinal, earthy
As a rule of thumb, he mentioned earthy spices like cumin are always good with meats, turmeric will intensify spice/heat rather than adding more cayenne, and there should always be a balance of acidic and sweet flavors. It was fascinating seeing these spices in a new way and I came away with a better understanding of each one and how it would react in combination with others. Cinnamon was no longer for desserts, cayenne not the key to heat, everything was new, these spices were no longer separated in our minds for baking or cooking, chicken or beef, anything was game.
So we just had to figure out where to start … and be willing to experiment. Basic curry will have the following four spices. Figure out the right combination for you and then build from there. Of course, there are variations of curry from numerous regions around the world, including spice pastes and fresh herb infusions, so consider this simply a launching point.
Cayenne — sweet, heat
Turmeric — intensifies heat/spice, adds color, gives an “alien” component
Cumin — earthy, has a “grounding effect”
Coriander — citrus, floral, sweet notes
I have fallen in love with curry, though it hasn’t been easy. Why? Because it is rarely consistent. I would try a dish that I liked at one restaurant to then be disappointed at the next restaurant because it wasn’t anything like I expected. My conclusion was curry is too risky to order without a full interrogation of the wait staff or those recommending it. Buying curry seasoning to make my own rendered much the same hit or miss. The flavor profile and level of heat (spicy) can vary significantly between brands, which makes it difficult to share a consistent recipe. From the class I learned that curry is a custom combination of spices, no two are the same.
This explained why it seemed impossible to find a consistent flavor from one restaurant to another, or among bottled blends.
In the six months since attending this class I’ve been busy in the kitchen and can attest to Chef Victor’s method for unlocking the mystery of curry. Knowing which of these you prefer—more cayenne and turmeric for spice or more coriander and cumin for earthy sweetness—help you to identify how to modify other recipes. Based on the combination of spices listed in the recipe, you will know right away how spicy, alien, sweet, or earthy the resulting dish will be before you begin. If you have a favorite curry seasoning blend, it can also be helpful to read the list of ingredients to know what you already like, which will give you a general direction when you’re ready to mix-in a greater variety of spice and take it to another level.
This Chicken Curry recipe was my attempt to discover the spice mix our family preferred, a bench mark of sorts. We tend to like curry with a hint of earthy sweetness that gives way to a finishing medium-mild kick. I like some heat to help intensify flavors, but not so much that there is no “rest” from the heat between bites. The floral notes of coriander keep this dish bright and coconut milk pleasantly rounds out the spice.
- 2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs -- cut into thirds or managable bite-sized pieces
- sea salt
- 1 small sweet onion -- diced
- 2 whole mild green chiles
- 1 medium zucchini -- sliced ¼" thick
- ½ small head cauliflower -- sliced ⅛" thick and broken into pieces
- 2 teaspoons garlic -- minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh ginger -- minced
- 1½ teaspoons coriander seeds -- ground
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds -- ground
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- ½ teaspoon cayenne
- 15 ounces coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 fluid ounce lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons fresh basil -- cut into thin strips for garnish
- Arrange chicken pieces out on a rimmed baking sheet and season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat and cook chicken pieces in batches so that the skillet is not crowded until almost done. Add more oil if needed. Reserve on a paper towel lined platter.
- In the same skillet, add onion and chile and cook over medium heat until edges begin to brown (a little more oil can be added if needed). Add the cauliflower and zucchini to the skillet and cook until zucchini softens. At this point the skillet may be dry, which is okay, that helps the vegetables to lightly brown creating another layer of flavor.
- Add garlic, ginger, and spices to the vegetables and cook 2-3 minutes until garlic and ginger are fragrant and spices are lightly toasted.
- Add the coconut milk and salt to the skillet and stir to incorporate spices and create the sauce. Return chicken to the skillet and once the sauce starts to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender and the chicken is cooked through.
- Add the lemon juice, taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Garnish with basil and serve with rice or lentils.
What’s the next curry adventure? Beef Massamon, or something like it.