Making Curries

Curries of are well-loved all around the world.

Southeast Asian cuisines have evolved many popular curry-based recipes. If anything, every curry recipe is a mixture of influence of different cultures carried from port to port by trade and colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Merchants hawked their spices and herbs, and sailors and natives were inspired to evolve new recipes with ingredients from foreign lands.

From India, we have spices like cumin, coriander and cinnamon. From South America came chilli peppers. From Southeast Asia we have herbs like pandunus leaves, ginger, tamarind and lemongrass. Some early results of using herbs and spices from far and near are Nonya curries. To this day, this exotic and heady mixing of herbs, spices and chilies continue to inspire fusion recipes.

It has been said that there are as many curry recipes as there are households that cook them. We can understand why this is so as housewives use ingredients that she can find at home for her daily curries. Some of these creations eventually became popular in the community and were given names. The success of a curry in one food stall could result in it being duplicated elsewhere. A good example is Fish Head Curry which became known in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1950s. Being published in books, magazines and newspapers also popularize recipes and gave them an official name and place in our cuisine.

It is important to have a basic understanding of what makes a good curry.

Firstly, and this should be self-evident, use fresh spices and herbs. Their source is important, of course, as some countries or regions grow better spices than others. In the humid, tropical weather of Southeast Asia, extra care is also needed to keep spices and herbs fresh.

Assembling spice mixes yourself gives you more control and helps you to develop your palate and ability to recognize the difference which each spice makes to the recipe. All things being equal, spice seeds are generally fresher than store-bought ground spice. That said, if the ground mix is fresh, it can be very good too. So, while the recipes here call for you to assemble the spices yourself, if you are familiar with some good mixes, do use them. Sometimes, you simply have no local access to fresh spices, so you will just have to settle for powdered blends.

And whatever a cook may tell you, no single spice is mandatory for curry. If a recipe has a few types of spices and you are short of one, just leave it out.

Note that a bit of spice will go a long way in flavoring a curry. A common mistake which home cooks make is to imagine that adding water to curry powder will give you curry the way adding water to milk powder will give you milk. Most curries need a ‘body’ and this often comes from shallots or onions and other herbs like ginger or garlic. Onions will need to be slowly simmered in some oil to caramalise or sweat them to remove the sulfuric flavours and sweeten the paste. Sufficient oil is also needed for both mouth-feel and flavours, as most spices and chilies are oil-soluble rather than water-soluble.

Sufficient salt is also important. Salt enhances flavour and brings out the complexity of the curry. Leave out salt and your curry will be tasteless, no matter how much and how many types of spices you put into it. Add salt in stages, bearing in mind that the curry will thicken as water evaporates.

And whether you are using meat, potatoes or vegetables in your curries, the key is not to overcook it. Mushy meat has an unpleasant texture and overcooking means that a lot of flavours would have been released and lost from the meat.

The type of chilli you use will also affect the aroma of your curry. For this book, the chillies I refer to are the ones commonly found in markets and supermarkets.

Most curries are cooked in two stages. You first make the spice paste or rempah and then you add the meat.

To make the curry creamier, milk, coconut milk or yoghurt is used. If your curries already have good flavours from the spices, use the milk or coconut milk in moderation. Indian curries normally use yoghurt which adds a sour note and balances a good-flavored curry very well. Evaporated milk is sometimes used too.

While a curry recipe tends to have a longer list of ingredients than recipes for other dishes, you don’t need advanced culinary skills to make a good one. You can hardly ruin a curry. Even if you are new to cooking, give it a try. And if you think your first try wasn’t great, remember that practice makes perfect.