June 01, 2022 1 Comment
'What exactly is masala?' This question came from my assistant as she read over my last blog post on Chana Masala - the dish, which is made with Chana Masala - the spice, and Punjabi Masala, the sauce. What the what? It's at once utterly confusing and incredibly simple. Masala means mixture of spices. So, a mixture of warming spices roasted and then ground down to a fine powder is a Garam Masala. A mixture of spices that are slightly tart and perfect paired with chickpeas roasted and ground down is a Chana Masala. Plain cumin seeds, turmeric powder, or coriander powder are not masalas because they are whole, individual spices.
Then, there is the mixture of fresh ingredients like onion, ginger, and garlic, paired with spices like turmeric and cumin that are cooked together and then ground into a paste. That's a masala as well, but it's a wet or gila masala or my Punjabi Masala that is made from my own recipe and that can be used in place of doing the chopping and grinding yourself. This is the equivalent of an Indian soup starter or a curry starter if you will.
Which gets us to the elephant in the room. What the heck is curry? To Indians, curry means gravy. Still, we don't use the word curry to refer to our dishes much when speaking to one another because we know the individual names in their respective Indian languages including Hindi. But, if I am inviting someone over for an Indian meal who is not as comfortable with the language or cuisine and they ask me what I'm making, I'll say I'm making Indian curries. Or a chickpea curry, kidney bean curry, peas and cheese curry, etc. But note, I'll never refer to a dried vegetable dish as a curry. It's not, because there is no gravy. Maybe in that case I'll call it 'curried' cauliflower and potatoes to imply there is Indian spice in there but that it's not a water-based gravy.
The spice blend that many stores sell called 'curry' (for Indian food) is not a thing for Indians. And, I am getting a little frustrated by spice companies and stores that know better but that continue to keep the misinformation going. I grew up eating Indian food daily and had zero clue what my neighbors were going on about growing up in Pennsylvania. When they made fun of yellow curry I had no idea they meant a curry powder that their moms used in potato salad and the like to make it taste more Indian. We never cooked with a spice blend called 'curry powder'. We used whole spices to make our various blends called masala. I've written four cookbooks and not one recipe calls for a spice blend called curry. Now, some Indian families may use a 'curry blend' to make a curry chicken, etc. but note that most of those dishes are an overhang from the British Colonization of India rather than a specific technique from Indian by Indians.
So why in America do they call all Indian dishes curry? I believe it's just a little easier than knowing all the names of the specific dishes. If you are not eating Indian consistently, how would you know that chickpeas in a spicy broth is Chana Masala and peas and cheese in a spicy broth is Mattar Paneer, and kidney beans in a spiced broth is Rajmah and so on? So, we say we're having curry. It makes sense and it resonates. Keep in mind, as Indian food gains popularity in America that is all slowly shifting and changing. My customers (you!) know exactly what their favorite dishes are called by their non-English names. This shows the continued growth in popularity of Indian cuisine in this country - and I could not be prouder to be a small part of this change that has happened right before my eyes in the last two decades.
So if we don't use curry, but you like curry, should you stop using it? Of course not. But, I find from all of my demos and events that most Americans that only know Westernized Indian dishes don't like the spice blend 'curry' very much and thus think they don't like Indian food. That's largely because when you try to use one generic spice blend to represent an entire cuisine it does not work. Nor does it taste so good when you take a blend and just dump it into water to create a stew or gravy. The dish turns out tasting flat rather than immersed in the deep and complex flavors for which Indian food is known and appreciated.
So, what to do? Purchase your Indian spices and blends from a reliable source. Obviously I love it when you all support our efforts here at Indian As Apple Pie, but I always love supporting my communities' network of small Indian grocers as well. And, when you shop turn the blend over and look at the back panel. Never buy Indian spice blends filled with things like Red Food Dye 40, celery seed, or onion powder. Or, certainly, chicken stock and other fillers like unneeded salts. I've seen it all and it does not make for a good, clean cooking and eating experience. Always reach out and I'd love to continue to help educate you so you know what you are eating and why! Thanks for taking the time to get Indian right! Oh, and if your favorite grocer does not carry our line of spices - walk right up to their customer service desk and tell them about this blog post and Indian As Apple Pie!
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