Curry Powder

The other day at the local food emporium, I had chance to witness a terrible crime. There, on the shelf just below eye level, sat a prim little tin of kosher salt, labeled with an honest-looking brown sticker in a respectable handwriting font. This little two and some ounce jar cost four dollars, pushing the price per pound up near thirty. At my feet: a big cardboard box of kosher salt, three pounds, two bucks.

It’s a rock, after all. But I didn’t come here to talk about that.

Instead: curry powder. I sometimes stop in the seasonings section of the supermarket and wonder at the little bottles of pricey spices that sit there, cheerfully labeled. Curry powder seems to be undergoing something of a market segmentation these days: there are kinds, now. The problem is that ground spices don’t age well, and those little jars have usually been kicking around the distribution channels long enough to be well past prime. A little voice whispers that it would be so easy to use them, but I say instead: I can do better. You can do better. Here’s how.

You will need a pot. I’ve got a pretty good pot, but pretty much anything will do, although the heavier the better. You will need some kind of grinder; I’ve got a cheap blade-style coffee grinder, and it works great. You will need whole spices from a reputable source. Put the pot on heat, toast the whole spices dry (you’ll be able to tell when they’re ready: they’ll smell fantastic), and then grind them up in the grinder. Use soon (or immediately). That’s it.

If I’m making a curry, I usually go with a bit of cumin, a bit of coriander, a bit of chana dal, and some black peppercorns. Sometimes I toss an untoasted clove or allspice into the grinder, too. When all of that is ground to powder with a little (kosher) salt, I add a bit of tumeric and fenugreek (I realize that I should be using whole fenugreek, but those things are murder to grind).

Using the spices this way perfumes the kitchen, the house, and on summer days a good part of the block. There is more oomph and depth in toasted whole spices, and the flavors settle down into a complex warmth. It only takes a handful of moments, and while the spices toast I can use the time to lop up an onion and peel the ginger. Best of all: if you do it right, each time out will be a surprise, and with practice, they will all be fantastic.

Additional Resources

Along with being an excellent source for spices, herbs, and other assorted flavorings (and we are blessed to have a storefront here in Pittsburgh), the good folks at Penzey’s make a set of pretty good powder mixes for curries.