Back when I grew up, the term curry referred to that mustard-colored powder in the McCormick tin spice container that sat in the cupboard with a thin film of dust until my mom felt like making curried chicken salad or, well, more curried chicken salad. These days, I’d be surprised if cooks under thirty knew what I was talking about. And many of the rest of us now know that the curry you can find in a McCormick’s jar is not Indian at all; it’s a British concoction, the result of a long ago attempt to capture the essence of Indian cooking and bring it back to the West.
Indian food has exploded on to the scene in the last twenty years, and you can now find Indian restaurants in every major city in North America and sometimes in smaller towns as well. You still may not be able to find garam masala at your typical grocery store, but many young people have an idea of what it is.
Yet the term curry is still somewhat misused in Western lingo. We still use curry to refer to Indian food in general, and we think is that it’s a saucy, one-pot Indian dish, like a stew. Still others order a curry believing that what makes curry curry is the addition of garam masala, a specific blend of Indian spices that you can pick up at an Asian grocery store to use at home. It’s the more authentic version of yesterday’s curry powder, fit for more knowledgeable cooks in the twenty-first century.
However, both these definitions are incorrect. In fact the English term curry is likely a bastardization of the South Indian term kari, which simply means vegetables or meat that are cooked in spices. It is not necessarily related to stew. Further misreadings led people to associate curry with the North Indian word tari, meaning ‘sauce.’
Confusing, right? Though, it’s no surprise considering the extent to which the term curry has gotten around. You can now find curries on menus ranging from Southeast Asia to Japan to East Africa. Generally, they do refer to a sauce-based dish. Whether the term is used solely for the benefit of English speakers or whether curry is now defined in some countries as a sauce-based dish, I’m not sure. Maybe some of you know?
In India, however, these sauce-based dishes are not called ‘curry,’ but simply ‘wet.’ Dishes in which meat, fish or vegetables aren’t drowned in a sauce are, expectedly, called “dry.”
Furthermore, garam masala is not used in every Indian dish. It is not a catch-all phrase for the spices in Indian food. Garam masala simply refers to an intense spice blend, and it is mixture that is used in addition to several other spices in a dish. There is not simply one garam masala either. The ingredients of a garam masala vary from region to region. Most Indian food that you find in the West is based on only North Indian specialties. That could be why the idea of a single garam masala blend developed.
A hallmark of Indian cooking is not simply the use of so many spices but when and how they are included in a recipe. Garam masala blends can be roasted and ground or added whole to a dish. Usually, however, a garam masala is included as a finishing touch at the end of cooking.
In Bengali cooking, the gram masala is a fairly simple mixture of cinnamon, clove, green cardamom and tej patta. (also known as ‘Indian bay leaf,’ though it should not be confused with the common Mediterranean bay leaf). Many cooks, however, often leave out the tej patta. Because of its simplicity, cooks find Bengali garam masala easy to blend fresh at home. You first want to start with whole spices. Whole cinnamon and clove can easily be found at any supermarket. Cardamom and tej patta require a little more searching. I’d suggest checking out your local Asian or south Asian market. You’ll find spices at cheaper prices at these local stores. You can also order online. I suggest Kalustyan’s.
If you want to work with a masala powder blend you need a coffee grinder for grinding the spices. You should always keep a separate grinder reserved for spices (unless, of course, you want masala flavored coffee!) These days grinders are fairly cheap and you can pick one up for around ten to twenty dollars.
Once you have your spices and your grinder, you are ready to roast and grind. You can make a large batch of garam masala to keep in a tin, or you can grind spices for each dish separately. Because whole spices last longer than ground, I try to grind each time I cook. But I just as often use pre-ground mixes. Life gets busy. Lightly dry roasting releases the oils that create aroma and flavor, so that the flavors become more intense.
Bengali garam masala requires equal proportions of cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and tej patta. When I’m making a small batch for a single dish, as I did last night, I usually guest mate. The benefit of making small batches is that, if you don’t like the blend you prepared, you can use slightly different proportions the next time. I don’t worry too much about the proportions since Indian cooks themselves use more intuition than anything else in cooking. Each kitchen really does have its own spice blends.
Lightly dry roasting releases the oils that create aroma and flavor, so that the spices become more intense. You want a heavy pan for roasting so that the spices don’t burn when cooking. Place the dry pan (you don’t need any cooking oils for roasting) on a gentle medium heat, and when the pan is well heated, throw on the spices (you can keep the tej patta separate, and add to cooking as you would a bay leaf). Don’t run away. The roasting time should take only a few minutes. You’ll know they’re ready when you begin to smell the intense aroma, and the spices turn slightly darker. If your spices begin to pop, don’t worry; that’s a sign that they are ready. But if your spices are smoking, you’ve cooked them too long. When they’re done, transfer them to a plate to cool, then grind them. I usually just throw them right into the grinder while they’re hot. Cooling be damned. And, yes, you can throw the entire cardamom pod in for grinding. That’s what is in the powder you buy at the store.
Now, those instructions are my assumption that you have the time and inclination to make your own garam masala. If you don’t there are plenty of selections at Indian markets. And once your masala, fresh or prepared, is ready, here’s a recipe you can try it with:
Baked Macher (Fish) Masala (adapted from The Bengal Cookbook, by Minakshie DasGupta)
4 whitefish fillets
2 small-medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 small-medium onions, ground to a paste
1 Tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon red chili powder
3-4 cloves of garlic, ground to a paste
2 inches ginger, ground to a paste (this is an approximation, the amount of ginger should be equivalent to the amount of garlic you have)
6 Tablespoons plain yogurt
4 Tablespoons mustard oil (or vegetable oil)
1 teaspoon ground Bengali garam masala (cinnamon, clove, green cardamom)
4 leaves Tej Patta (if you find them; do not substitute with traditional bay leaves)
Salt and sugar to taste
It’s good to keep in mind that these proportions are variable. This dish is usually made with bhekti fish, but as most whitefish found in Bengal is not easily gotten in North America, feel free to use a white fish you like. I used red snapper. This dish turns out to be fairly spicy, so if you can’t handle very spicy food, I suggest you cut the chili powder. I added more yogurt than suggested, to give some extra sauce to the paste. Mustard oil is the traditional cooking oil of Bengal, but if you don’t have it, you can certainly use vegetable oil instead.
First, wash and clean the fish, making diagonal slashes along both sides. Rub half of the garlic, ginger and onion pastes on both sides of the fish and set the fish aside to marinate for half an hour.
Heat the oven to 375 F.
Heat the mustard oil in a frying pan until it begins to smoke (mustard oil requires a high cooking temperature). Next, fry the onion slices to golden brown. When the onions are ready, add the garam masala mixture, chili, turmeric and tej patta. Let it cook in the pan for a minute or two. Then add the remaining onion paste, sugar and salt. Stir the paste together, letting the onion mixture absorb the spices for a several minutes. Finally, add the yogurt and mix well.
When the fish is ready, place it in an ovenproof dish or, alternatively, heavy foil. Cover both sides of the fish with the masala paste. Cover the dish with foil. Then place it in the oven to cook for about 20- 30 minutes. Serve your masala macher with rice and a simple Bengali salad of cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, lime juice, green chili and chat masala. You can pick that up at a South Asian market, too.