So let’s just get this out of the way first. What exactly is curry? If it’s on a restaurant menu, it’s a complexly flavored sauce that creates heavenly dishes with vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or seafood. And, well, it’s got to include fragrant ingredients like lemongrass, and ginger or galangal, and, perhaps chiles, although those herbs and spices will vary depending on the dish and its geographic origin.
Then there is curry powder. These aromatics tend to be used in the Indian subcontinent and in British dishes, but are also found across Asia and into the Caribbean. There’s no one combination of dried spices that makes up curry powder. They tend to have specific names to will tell you their use, like garam masala, which usually has cumin, cardamom, turmeric, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. You can create a curry dish with curry powder but also use it for a marinade or a spice rub or sprinkled over roasted vegetables to add flavor.
And, there are actual curry leaves. These green leaves tend to be citrusy and sometimes bitter, and, yes, they’re used in Indian cuisine, but they aren’t a substitute for curry powder.
But for our purposes, let’s talk about curry, the well-traveled saucy dish. The name is derived from the southern Indian word “kari,” meaning sauce and was transformed into “curry,” probably by the British, who had colonized India in the 18th century. You’ll find curry not just in India, but also Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Bali, Japan, and the Caribbean—not to mention around the world in countries that have fallen in love with its powerful flavors and often creamy texture.
I have friends in San Diego who own a wonderful restaurant called World Curry. Bruce Jackson actually discovered curry in his mid-20s in Japan during a visit. Nothing fancy, it was the popular boxed instant curry that the Japanese, he said, eat all the time. He’d also find it in Singapore and Thai restaurants there and since he loved cooking, he started experimenting, taking cooking classes in Thailand and doing deep dives into cookbooks. His ex-wife Momoko, who is Japanese, started the business with him back in 1995 and continues to work with him, handling the marketing.
If you’ve been wary about trying your hand at making curry, Jackson assures that curry is pretty straightforward. “It’s like making spaghetti sauce in that you stir once in awhile and don’t let it burn. For Thai curries, all the work is in making the paste. Once you have that, it goes quickly.”
To achieve real smoothness with both the sauces and the pastes, Jackson recommends using a blender instead of a food processor.
The dishes also benefit from time—lots of it. Jackson likes to cook the curries the day before serving them to give the flavors time to mingle.
This is especially true, Jackson said, for the Bali Beef, a rich, thick stew that he explains is basically an Indonesian curry since Bali doesn’t use much beef. His inspiration was a curry at a Bali food cart, sticky rice and beef—like a rice ball with spicy beef—served with a banana leaf. In Jackson’s version, the brisket ultimately falls apart in the long, slow cooking process, bathed in garlic, cumin, black pepper, chili powder, onion, lemongrass, galangal, and coconut milk. Brown sugar adds depth and a little lemon juice, star anise powder, and cinnamon give it brightness.
Successfully making curry, according to Jackson, is basically about taking care with each step and creating building blocks of flavor. “Even an extra 20 seconds can make a difference in the results,” he said. “Letting the sauce gently simmer and settle in will yield more flavor.”
Bali Beef (Rendang)
From World Curry
Serves 4 to 6
¼ cup cooking oil (canola, peanut, or other vegetable oil)
1 ½ pounds brisket or stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons fresh chopped garlic
2 tablespoons cumin powder
2 tablespoons coriander powder
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
½ cup fresh chopped onion
¼ cup fresh lemongrass chopped
2 tablespoons galangal or ginger chopped
1 cup coconut milk
¼ cup brown sugar
1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoons star anise powder
½ teaspoons cinnamon
- Heat oil on medium/high heat and sauté the beef until browned on most sides. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- In the same pan sauté the garlic until golden. Stir in the cumin, coriander, black pepper, and chili powder and cook for another minute. Stir in the onion, lemongrass, and galangal. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the contents of the pan and the cup coconut milk to the blender. Blend until smooth and pour the blender contents back into the stock pot.
- Add in the browned beef, then add all the remaining ingredients to the same stock pot.
- Bring to a low boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 4 hours stirring occasionally. When the beef falls apart and is tender the curry should be done. Serve with steamed rice.
Do you ever make a traditional curry? Tell us about your favorite recipe!
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