Questions About Spices & Ingredients


What is curry powder and how do I make it?

We have grown curry in our garden for the first time this season. How do we use it please?

What's the best way to store spices?

You seem to use fenugreek leaves a lot but I can't find them anywhere. Can I substitute fenugreek seeds?

What are the green herby bits in the Madras at my local restaurant?

Do you happen to know if an electric coffee mill is sufficient to grind whole spices?

I have grown chillies in my greenhouse this year and have loads that need picking. How do I preserve them? I do not want to waste them.

I have a recipe for an aubergine bhaji that calls for "panch phoran". I have never heard of it. Any suggestions?


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What is curry powder and how do I make it?

Curry powder is a commercial preparation which is meant to replicate the mix of spices found in South Asian dishes. But curry powder will always fail in that aim. Why? Because true Indian or Pakistani dishes (and even restaurant-style curries) will each use its own individual combination of spices. Curry powder will always have a fixed blend of spices so all your curries will come out tasting the same.

Curry powder certainly originated in India but its target customers were British not Indian. It was first made for the households of the colonial British in India and then later, in considerable bulk, for the ex-colonials who had returned home and pined for their curry and rice. Nowadays it is sold around the world and used wherever a dish needs to be "curried".

So you do not need curry powder to make a curry. If you have the interest and energy to think about making your own curry powder then channel your enthusiasm into finding a good recipe and preparing your curry with its own unique blend of spices. The result will be more authentic and far more tasty.

If you're really desperate to make your own then see my recipe for Classic British Roast Turkey Curry and use the option of adding ground fenugreek seed to the mix. You might also try adding a small amount of ground aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.

Despite all I've said, the one time I would use curry powder is in Anglo-Indian dishes which need a subtle curry flavour such as Kedgeree or Mulligatawny Soup. You might as well use ready made curry powder for those dishes because they require that particular "British curry" taste.

If you are going to use commercially prepared curry powder buy the best you can afford. Cheap curry powders bulked out with poor quality ingredients are a waste of money. If you live in the UK try and get hold of Rajah Madras Curry Powder which is always reliable. Also worthwhile is that old favourite, Bolst's Curry Powder, which is sold internationally.



We are growing curry in our garden for the first time this season. How do we use it please?

As far as I am concerned you cannot grow curry. Curry is a sauce of onions, garlic and ginger flavoured with a mixture of spices.

I suspect you are growing what is known as the "curry plant" so called because of the smell of curry powder that the leaves give off when disturbed. The curry plant is native to the Mediterranean and its botanical name is Helichrysum Angustifolium. I only know it as a decorative herb and have never seen it used in cooking.


Murraya koenigii
one of my Murraya Koenigii plants
      Of course, if you live in a frost-free climate you may be growing the curry leaf tree - Murraya Koenigii - which is quite different to the curry plant.

The Murraya Koenigii tree is native to India and is the source of "curry leaves" which are used extensively in southern Indian cooking. Find a good south Indian recipe or try frying the curry leaves and using them as a garnish.

       Murraya koenigii
Helichrysum Angustifolium

I am trying to grow Murraya Koenigii plants here in England (see my curry garden blog), but they are not frost hardy so have to be brought indoors over the winter. I expect too that they will grow much more slowly in our temperate climate than they would in their natural semi-tropical environment.



What's the best way to store spices?

Once you've opened the packet you need to keep them in an airtight container. Glass jars (re-cycle old chutney, mustard jars etc.) are ideal as long as they are clean and dry. Do NOT keep your spices in the light - a cupboard or drawer is fine. Store your spices away from all sources of heat - cooker, sunlight, radiator etc.



You seem to use fenugreek leaves a lot but I can't find them anywhere. Can I substitute fenugreek seeds?

Fenugreek seeds are NOT a good substitute for leaves. Think of the difference in flavour between fresh coriander (cilantro) and coriander seed. You can use them as a substitute but you'll get a different flavour. If you do use fenugreek seeds DO NOT overheat them or you will really know what bitter tastes like. Add them with the liquid.

So are fenugreek leaves essential? No, but they do make the standard curries (do-piaza, Madras, dhansak, bhuna etc.) taste like they came from a restaurant. Having said that, no curry house puts them in all their curries. For instance, their taste is too strong for subtle dishes made with cream such as the korma.

A number of online shops sell fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi) by mail order. Try Spices of India who sell MDH Peacock brand which is the best you'll find anywhere.



What are the green herby bits in the Madras at my local restaurant?

This is a tricky one as I've almost certainly never been to your local restaurant. But ... if the herbs look like parsley they are probably fresh coriander (cilantro) but if they look a bit like thyme they are probably fenugreek leaves which, in any case, have a very distinctive aroma. They smell like every curry house you've ever walked past in the street.



Do you happen to know if an electric coffee mill is sufficient to grind whole spices?

Yes, that's what I use. I have a small one which grinds more than enough for a few curries. Try to get one that's not too large as you will really notice the difference if you grind your spices freshly and regularly.

I clean it out with ordinary rice (not my best Basmati !!). Just pour enough rice in to cover the grinding mechanism, grind the rice and throw away. Wipe out the bowl with a paper towel and there you are. Also works well if you have been grinding nuts etc.



I have grown chillies in my greenhouse this year and have loads that need picking. How do I preserve them? I do not want to waste them.

Well, they should still be fine in the greenhouse for a while even if it is not heated. I still have live, fruiting chilli plants outdoors (late October) although they are against a sheltered S. facing wall. So don't hoick them out yet!

What to do?

Freezing works pretty well. You lose the crisp texture but nothing in flavour or heat. I tend to have a major session this time of year chopping up the chillies quite finely then freeze open on a tray. When frozen, bag them up and you have ready made pizza topping, addition to curries and stews etc etc. A word of warning though; if you are chopping a lot of chillies at a time you need to scrub your hands well afterwards. If your skin is sensitive try getting hold of the thin rubber gloves used for lab work (ask your dentist).

You could pickle them. I haven't got a specific recipe for pickled chillies but any pickled onion recipe should work fine. Soak the chillies in brine first then pickle in vinegar. Don't use malt vinegar - it's fine for onions but too strong for chillies. I'd go for cider vinegar myself. Make up your own spicing or leave it out altogether.

Do NOT preserve in oil unless you have a reliable, detailed recipe that also includes vinegar. Chillies have virtually no acidity and without acidity various very dangerous bugs can grow.

My final suggestion is to spike your favourite chutney recipe with your chillies. Any reliable recipe will work (again making sure there is a good quantity of vinegar in the recipe).



I have a recipe for an aubergine bhaji that calls for "panch phoran". I have never heard of it. Any suggestions?

Yes indeed. Panch Phoran is a Bengali mixture of 5 spices. To make it you mix together equal parts of ...

cumin seed
fenugreek seed
kalonji (onion seed)
fennel seed
black mustard seed

Dry roasting the seeds first will give added depth of flavour.