A Beginner’s Guide to Curry: Everything You Need to Know About the Spices and Seasonings
Time to read 6 min
Time to read 6 min
In its most simple terms, curry is a sauce flavored with a mix of spices. The word “curry” today is thought more of as a method of cooking — incorporating seasonings into a flavorful and spicy sauce — rather than a single dish.
It's popularity around the world is truly owed to its versatility. Every culture has its own. They can be red, green, yellow, rice based, vegetarian, or meat-based. The possibilities are endless!
No one really knows when curry was first invented, but the particular cooking method and spice mixes have been traced back to Indian cooking in 2500 BCE, and it is thought to have spread throughout Asia and Europe as Indian Monks traveled the Silk Route. Curry was influenced by Portugal and Spain, who brought chilies to India, and has continued to evolve and become adopted by many countries over the years.
Amusingly, even though most people attribute “curries” to India, if you were to go there today, they’d likely have a hard time knowing what you were asking for. This is because the term “curry” is British in origin and was based on a misunderstood generalization.
Today curry can be found worldwide and enjoyed by people of different cultures and ethnicities everywhere.
Curry is an integral part of many cultures today, and coming up with a comprehensive list of all the places in the world that use this versatile dish would make for a very long article. So, we are not going to talk about all of the varieties of curry in the world here. We’ll focus on just talking about the two styles of this widely-known dish and offer some examples as we go.
Put simply, curries can be wet or dry. This is the easiest way to identify and classify curries, and most countries tend to lean towards one type of curry or the other in their cuisine, but many cultures utilize a mixture of both.
We will start with dry curries because “curry” is widely accepted as Indian in origin, and most Indian curries are considered dry. All this means is that they are cooked in less liquid, resulting in the vegetables and/or meat inside the curry being coated with a very flavorful sauce.
On the other hand, wet curries are very common in Thailand and are made with a much larger quantity of liquid. This results in a soupier and creamier curry than a dry curry — hence the name “wet.”
Traditional Indian curries use a blend of dry (usually ground) spices in addition to some whole spices. Most Indian families, especially South Indian families, mix their spices from scratch every time they make a dish. And unfortunately, for many people who hope to learn the secrets of making a family recipe, the number of spices that go in is rarely measured carefully.
This said, plenty of curry spice blends — such as curry powder and garam masala — can be used today to get those classic Indian curry flavors.
Now, it is important to note that dry spices or spice mixes are not the only types of “curry spice” that can be added to your curries. In fact, Thailand and many other countries are much more accustomed to using curry pastes rather than powders to form their curries. These pastes are typically made from toasting spices and grinding them to form a solid paste-like thickener to use in the typically wet style of curries that they prefer.
Curry pastes typically come in one of three colors: red, yellow, or green. These pastes differ in spice level (with green being the mildest and red being the spiciest) and flavor, so you can achieve different-tasting curries depending on which curry paste you use.
Now that you have a better understanding of what curry is and the different types of curries, you may be wondering how you can make one for yourself. There are no doubt endless tips and tricks for making curries online, but here we’re going to address some of the most important things to know about making curry.
To make an Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi (among others) curry, you’ll need to master the art of tempering your spices. This is typically the first step done in any curry and can, as we mentioned earlier, change from day to day. But, it typically utilizes the same ingredients and always uses the same technique.
You will need ghee or oil, the spices you are tempering, and a pan and stove. Typically tempered spices include:
If this looks like a long list, don’t worry! Most of the time, a single temper will only use a few spices at a time. We have added below a typical temper
For a basic temper, you will heat your pan and add the ghee and spices (cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, hingh, turmeric, curry leaves, onion, and dried red chilies), and wait until the mustard seeds start popping in the pan. This means your spices have had enough time to release their oils, and you are ready to use them.
Since the majority of the flavor of curry comes from the spices you use, you want to ensure that you are using the best spices you can find. To get a much tastier and more aromatic curry, look for high-quality, organic spices (whether using a spice mix or individual spices), and do not buy more than you will use at a time. As spices age, they lose their pungency and can even taste different.
If you are curious how to tell if your spics are still fresh (or just want to keep them fresh longer, check out our article: Do Spices and Seasonings Expire? A Guide on How Long Spices Stay Fresh
While each curry-making household may have its own unique blend of spices that they’ve been using for generations, finding the right balance of spices can be extremely difficult — especially if you are a beginner to curries. Luckily, you don’t have to try to do it all on your own. Plenty of premade spice mixes can give you the delicious curry flavor you are looking for.
For example, if you want to make delicious Thai-style curries for your friends and family, you may love this Organic Thai Spiced Coconut Curry pack. This set offers all three typical Thai spice blends — red, yellow, and green — so you can truly dive into classic and delicious Thai-style curries at home.
Perhaps you’ve just fallen in love with curries, or maybe you’ve been trying to figure out how to make them for years. Regardless of your reasoning for pursuing curry, there are plenty of easy ways to create those delicious and flavorful meals without spending years living in many countries that call curry a staple of their cuisine.
Suppose you’re looking to make many different types of curries but are worried about mixing spices on your own. In that case, you can get started with FreshJax’s Organic Thai Spices Coconut Curry Set, which includes the three Thai coconut curry flavors as well as three other spice blends that invoke flavors of Thailand, India, and North Africa.
What are your favorite styles of curry?
Are there some that you are... curry-ous about?
What seasonings and spices do you use in your curries?
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