Thinking about curries
This is the time of year for spices. In summer, I avoid spice. It overpowers the garden flavors of summer vegetables and fresh herbs.
But when the weather starts to get cold, I hit the spice cabinet.
Last weekend, I did my annual spice cleaning and replacement. I noticed some spices that I had used very little -- fenugreek, turmeric, coriander. Those spices started me thinking about curry.
As much as I love curries, the word curry is troubling. It raises a lot of questions:
What is curry? Is it a blend of spices (or is that masala)? Or is it just a word for certain Asian sauces? If so, what is common to curry?
Is the word just a Western oversimplification of flavors we don't quite understand? Or is there really a category of food that is rightfully called curry?
I don't know the answers -- at least not yet. But I am going to try to find out.
Malaysian dry curry
Perhaps the best place to start thinking about curry is Malaysia.
Malaysian dry curries strike me as the essence of curry. The gritty curry you get on beef rendang looks like coarse spices resting in a small amount of oil. The flavor is full of intense spices, but not particularly hot spices. Malaysian curry tastes primitive; it tastes of-the-earth.
But the reality is a little more complicated than that.
At Banana Leaf in the Bellaire Chinatown, I ordered Banana Leaf Curry Chicken. The plate consists of hacked up chunks of bone-in, dark meat with a rendang-like sauce.
It is a dish that makes you focus on spice flavors. At one moment, the flavor is cardamom. Then ginger and garlic. And more than anything else, I taste the earthiness of cumin.
This curry looks like a simple mix of spices cooked in in oil. But it is more complex. The base is coconut meat -- an ingredient whose flavor I don't detect in the final sauce. But coconut meat may explain the gritty texture.
It also is not a simple dish. Malaysian curries are often cooked for a long time, sometimes hours.
The curry's personality
My theory is that every curry has a personality. Sometimes the personality reflects the culture. Sometimes it may not.
The personality of dry Malaysian curry is deceptively simple, basic, and masculine. Its texture is oily, gritty, primative. It changes from bite-to-bite as different spices step forward to assert themselves. Yet it is not a curry that allows any other flavor to dominate the raw earthiness of the spices. There is no sweet coconut here, no peppery heat -- just spice.
This is a curry that demands one thing: "The spice must flow."
Next: Japanese curry