Before The Age of Aquarius, there was The Age of Rumaki.
That was my age — the late 1950s — when culinarily adventurous suburbanites hosted bridge parties and served exotic treats like rumaki and deviled eggs and Chex mix. My slightly adventurous, but culinarily-challenged, mother made all of those delicacies, for which she kept a tin of curry powder at the ready in her pantry.
I have the identical tin on my spice rack.
A blend of many individual spices, curry powder comes in infinite varieties, because in Indian kitchens each family creates its own basic spice mixtures, or masalas, fresh every day. Masala means spice blend; curry powder is a masala. (A person who blends the spices is called a masalchi.) The composition of the curry powder also varies by region, with hotter curries generally found in the southern part of India.
Commercial curries, too, are as individual as the vendor, and can contain up to twenty spices, herbs and seeds. I actually have nine curry powders in my pantry. Eight of them came in a lovely set from Penzeys — a wonderful introduction to curries from all of the geographic regions of the Indian subcontinent, including the fiery hot vindaloo.
The sweet, hot, and Madras (hot) curry powders get the most workout in my kitchen. Look closely and you'll see the difference in the ingredients (I've Americanized the spellings, for consistency):
Sun Brand Madras Curry: Coriander seeds, turmeric, chilies, salt, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, black pepper, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cinnamon, cloves, anise, mustard.
Penzeys Sweet Curry: Turmeric, Moroccan coriander, cumin, ginger, fenugreek, nutmeg, fennel, cinnamon, white pepper, cardamom, cloves, Telicherry black pepper, cayenne red pepper.
Penzeys Hot Curry (Cochin-style): Turmeric, cayenne pepper, coriander, ginger, cumin, fenugreek, white pepper, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, Telicherry black pepper.
Is my palate subtle enough to require so many curry powders? Of course not, but I'm learning by tasting, and I highly recommend this method.
Curry powder degrades quickly, and will keep no more than a couple of months in an airtight, light-tight container. I buy in larger quantities and store the extra in the freezer for up to six months.
Curried squash, apple and pear soup
A wonderful, comforting, sweet autumn soup. Can be doubled. Serves 4-6.
1 onion, peeled, cut into large chunks
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into large chunks
1 apple, cored, quartered (do not peel)
1 pear, cored, quartered (do not peel)
1 Tbsp curry powder, sweet or hot, or more to taste (optional)
1/2 cup apple cider
Juice of 1/2 lime or lemon
Few squirts of honey, to taste
A blast of hot sauce (a few drops, to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large stockpot, sauté onions in olive oil until just translucent (about 1 minute). Add squash, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes, until a few pieces start to brown on the outside (it’s okay if some sticks to the bottom of the pan, as long as it doesn’t burn).
Add apple, pear and curry powder and cook for 1 minute, stirring to cook the curry. Add cider, and then fill with water just to the level of the stuff in the pot (You can also use chicken broth in place of part of the water.). Continue to cook at a low boil, covered, until squash is tender. Remove from heat and puree, either with the immersion blender right in the pot, or in a food processor. Return smooth soup to the pot, and add remaining ingredients. Continue to cook over low heat for a few minutes, until flavors combine. Adjust seasonings to taste; you may want more lime, more honey, or more hot sauce –- or more of each.
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