We’ve been having a debate among our cooking friends about curry—which has the most flavour, a paste or a dry-roasted mix? When/in what sort of dishes would you use one or the other?
There are as many styles of curry as there are friends, and really there is no definitive answer for you.
The one curry I do have a love/hate relationship with is the traditional generic curry powder that you see in shops all over the country. High in fenugreek (the actual seed that gives curry its distinctive aroma) and turmeric (giving it the deep yellow colour), this powder is to be found in probably every New Zealand home.
Funnily enough, I was talking about this today, reminiscing about my step-mum Rose’s curried sausages, which I thought the pinnacle of sophistication when I was growing up. Rose would fry onions and sausages until a little coloured and then add sultanas and curry powder, then cook for a brief few seconds before adding a dusting of flour. Once mixed, a stock cube, water and Worcestershire sauce would be added and left to bubble away until cooked. Served with mashed spuds, I thought it all terribly delicious and very exotic.
After I’d left home, and New Zealand, I found myself in Melbourne for more than four years, doing a chef apprenticeship. In my days off I’d head to the various Thai and Malaysian restaurants and was blown away by the dishes they called curry. There was absolutely no fenugreek character in the dishes, and they’d often have lime leaves (which initially I’d thought were bay leaves), lemongrass, loads of fresh, chopped ginger and slices of its cousin, galangal. Completely different in character, heat content and sweetness (the latter being sweeter than socalled Indian curries): I was in curry heaven.
Five years later I was making my way to India via Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal and I distinctly recall eating a curry in Rangoon that made me sit up. I’d been loving the coconut-based Thai curries but suddenly I ate something that I knew contained spices such as cumin, toasted cinnamon and what appeared to be cardamom.
These were flavours that had been hinted at in Southern Thailand in a fabulous massaman curry of mutton (or goat) and, I have to say, the less sweet and more toasted spice character in Burma was very exciting. A few months later, having walked for 28 days counter-clockwise around the Annapurna circuit and up over the Thorong La pass (at 5416 metres, I’ll have you know) I was so full of the joys of the world having spent a month in the most glorious of places and exercised like never before, that I could have eaten a live goat. But, getting into the lakeside town of Pokhara, I ate the most delicious Kashmiri curry. Flavoured with saffron and almonds but cooked with cream, it was incredible.
Eventually I headed south into India and over the next three months I ate runny and sour fish curries on the beach in Goa, creamy ones on a houseboat in Srinagar, a terribly smelly stew (maybe it shouldn’t be called curry) in Ladakh and fabulously dry curries in Rajasthan. Every region offered a new take on curry, as did the North and South of Thailand, Muslim and Hindu Malaysia, and the Burmese from various ethnic groups.
As to which one was the best, there is simply no answer.
All I would say is that a coconut or cream-based curry will be sweetish and therefore can handle intense heat from chillies and pepper because of the fat content of the coconut and cream. Drier curries for me work best when served medium-hot, so long as you have a chilled lassi (yoghurt-based drink) nearby and lots of lovely cucumber raita to spoon over the top.
Either way, and whether they be coconut, cream, milk or stock-based, just make sure they get plenty of gentle simmering and that they are served piping hot.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.