What defines curry? It depends who you’re asking. To Jeffry Alford and Naomi Dugid, co-authors of the award-winning cookbook, Mangos and Curry Leaves, the definition of curry, as explained in their book, is “…The widely used generic English name for wet, sauced or spiced dishes from the Subcontinent.
The origin of the word is in dispute… Although it upsets purists, the term curry has become so widespread that we think it helps make cooked dished from the Subcontinent feel more familiar to people getting acquainted with the cuisines of the region.”
To Raghavan Iver, author of the cookbook 660 curries, curry is described as vivid flavors, seasonal ingredients and a kaleidoscope of unexpected flavors and combinations.
To most Americans, curry means the little jar filled with mustard colored powder in the spice section of the grocery store. This makes my friend Achla Karnani, of Punjabi ancestry, chuckle. Her father worked for the government so growing up she lived all over India, and I’ve penned several of her delicious, authentic recipes.
“It’s said that when the Brits finally got kicked out of India, they wanted to take some spices home to recreate what their khansama (cooks) had prepared for decades,” says Achla. “So one got his cook to mix up a batch of spices and took it on the ship. With the time and humidity, it turned into a rancid concoction. However, the Brit didn’t know any better so on arrival in England he had it replicated and foisted it on the world as curry powder.” (My little jar of “curry” is now cowering behind the cardamon pods and cumin seeds in my spice rack.)
Sid Sharma, who often shares his favorite Indian recipes, recommended I purchase 660 curries. Author Raghavan Iver does include a Madras Curry Powder in his cookbook, but says that no Indian household would have something called curry powder.
”Defining curry is like trying to grasp liquid mercury and gather it into a neat pile,” says Iver. “It should come as no surprise (but maybe it does) that the word curry itself is unknown in the Indian vocabulary, not included in any of the country’s 23 officially recognized languages or its more than 1,600 ‘mother tongues’ — dialects from the subcontinent’s 23 states and nine union territories.”
The following recipe is an adaption of Achla’s Cauliflower recipe (Phool Gobi), the Chana Masala recipe found in 660 Curries, by Raghavan Iyer, and my palate. I found pumpkin powder at the Spice Merchants in Kerrytown and thought its mild pumpkin-squash flavor would lend an unusual, yet seasonal distinction to the recipe.
Scrunching up her nose, Achla said she’d give her stamp of approval to this recipe only if you substitute the pumpkin powder with mango powder to taste. Mango powder is available at Indian groceries, such as Bombay Grocers on Packard, and called Amchur powder. Not as festive to the season, perhaps, but Achla says the following recipe would taste more authentic and delicious. (She has no problem, however, with serving the dish from a cauldron.) Happy Halloween!
Serve with basmati rice, chapati or roti, Indian flat breads.