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Curry Powder: Just How Authentic Is It?

I have an aversion to McCormick curry powder. I refuse to use it. I will use their Madras Red Curry Powder.

But on the occasions that I've eaten out at Indian restaurants (which I LOVE), I don't taste anything that resembles the stuff. What do Indian people really use? Do they really use "curry powder?"

If they really don't, what can I replace the curry powder ingredient listed in typical recipes with?

I have a feeling I should order something more authentic from Penzys or something. There aren't any Indian markets within 40 minutes of my house, or I'd go to one.


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  1. According to Brent Thompson who is knowledgeable on the subject and has lived in India: "the term curry itself isn't really used in India, except as a term appropriated by the British to generically categorize a large set of different soup/stew preparations ubiquitous in India and nearly always containing ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric, chile, and oil (except in communities which eat neither onion or garlic, of course) and which must have seemed all the same to the British, being all yellow/red, oily, spicy/aromatic, and too pungent to taste anyway."

    I don't buy prepackaged spice mixtures for Indian dishes. I roast and grind seeds and buy some individual powders for use in my own mixtures, which are dictated by the recipe I'm using. Once you have a selection, including coriander, cumin, fenugreek, peppercorns, cloves, etc, it's pretty easy to do. I use a cast iron skillet to roast seeds.

    The difference in flavor and aroma between making your own and buying packaged garam masala, for instance, is like night and day. If you get a cookbook by someone like Madhu Jaffrey, it will walk you through preparations for each dish quite nicely.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ellen

      Ellen is 100% correct. Yes, do make your own. I buy large individual bags of spices and seed (last time in one of the Indian supermarkets in Nairobi); and you can infinitely vary your mixture depending on taste and what dish you are preparing.

      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        The important words to remember in Sam's post are "what dish you are preparing." Madhur Jaffrey's works are very accessible and even in her recipes, there are few, if any, premixed powders used (except garam masala, used mainly to finish). It's all done by the dish - roasting and grinding where necessary, and generally cooking the spices with onion or garlic or ginger before adding the "main" ingredients.

        Even if, as Sam suggests, you buy large quantities of spices, try to buy the seeds themselves (cumin, coriander, cardamom, etc.) instead of the powders. They'll stay fresher longer.

    2. i've had good luck with premade 'curry' from a local indian market (big chunks of cinnamon and cardamom in it)

      i've also enjoyed using penzey's balti seasoning.

      but even as someone who grows a lot of fresh herbs and orders a lot of spices, i still don't try to make my own curry concoctions. i've never even tried toasting my own seeds. i have both black and green cardamom that i keep in my fridge stash and i keep powdered vietnamese cinnamon on hand from penzey's.

      i've made my own BBQ rubs, emeril seasoning clones and cajun mixes, but for some reason i've always preferred to buy curry mixes pre-ground.

      1. Curry powder IS authentic - it's authentically English, and it's excellent for English cooking and certain other uses (like making Inner Beauty Sauce). For most of the homey British dishes that call for the stuff out of the yellow tin, I think freshly ground, spicy, lovely masala blends would overpower the dish and make it come out all wrong.

        The way I see it, saying "curry powder" isn't authentic is like saying Vietnamese cafe sua da isn't authentic because real French people drink cafe au lait.

        That said, for your Indian cooking needs, Ellen and hitachino are right on. I have smelled the Penzey's garam masala mixes and they're really nice (the most expensive one is my favorite, I don't remember what it's called), but not nearly as nice as homemade or quality Indian-sourced stuff.

        1. I can't answer for Indian restaurants, but many other Asian rest that serve curry use a block of condensed curry. S & B is probably the most widespread brand and is available in almost any Asian store.

          1 Reply
          1. re: hannaone

            S&B curry mixes are Japanese style, so I doubt if they are used in Indian restaurants. However Indian groceries do sell a wide assortment of spice mixes. Garam masala is a 'warm' spice mix widely used to add a final touch of flavor to dishes. Others are intended to make various regional dishes, such as vindaloos, rogan josh (a Kashmir korma), keema (a ground meat dish), channa masala (a chickpea stew), etc. They come several forms - powders in single dish servings, larger packets, and jars of paste. Pataks brand of spice pastes are widely available in general supermarkets, and are a good way of getting started on cooking Indian style dishes at home.


          2. "Indian people" in Trinidad and Guyana absolutely use "curry powder," as do, of course, West Indian expats in places like Toronto. I don't see a lot of indo-Caribbean folks at "Indian" restos- they're more likely to be at pure laine Trini and many don't (I'm married to one so I can aver this) gravitate especially to authentic "Indian" of any stripe. However I find a very different tendency with Ismaili people from East Africa (Calgary, where I live, has the largest Ismaili ex-pat community in North America, per capita)- they own a lot of the "Indian" restos in town and although some do "African" food on their menues (mogo, cassava "fries," etc), you wouldn't know in most cases that the owners were not from India per se. And of course they would never touch prepared "curry powder," whereas as I say the West Indian part of the diaspora will almost literally bathe in it.

            1. I use Penzey's maharajah curry powder for eggs, and in addition to S&B or the other brand (the name of which escapes me right now) for Japanese style curries. I don't think of either as Indian. Penzey's sources their spices very well, and they are reliable for freshness, so I don't think you should feel bad using theirs. Of course, anyone who lives where the spices come from get fresher, but if you start with the whole spice and grind your own, you're doing well!

              When I make Indian food, I use individual spices, and the only mix is garam masala to finish. Oh, but there's one exception--there is a spice mix I use on fruit salad, chaat masala? I can't recall the name exactly, as it's been a while. I think it has a lot of amchoor (dried unripe mango, ground) because the flavor is a nice sour spicy and complements dead ripe fruit.

              1. I use a "commercial" garam masala -- the indian grocery store I shop at blends and grinds it in house, and I use a lot of whole spices and toast and grind my own powders for various dishes. The flavour is much brighter to me.

                Something you might try as a quick fix is to pick up some fenugreek seeds to toast and grind to add to what ever curry powder you currently use. The scent and taste of fenugreek is very distinctively "Indian", and may be what you're looking for since it's not used much in commerical curry powders.

                1. I'm Indian and here's what my Indian spice collection consists of -

                  The Basics: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric powder, red chili powder, asafoetida powder (called heeng in hindi), corriander powder (I really should throw out the several year old packet and get a new one, I wish Indian groceries would carry smaller bags of it so I'd be forced to buy fresh more often), my mom's grocer's garam masala powder although I am going to start using McCormick's as that smelled quite good, whole cinnamon, whole green cardamom, whole black cardamom, bay leaves, whole cloves, black peppercorns, whole corriander, whole dried red chilies, dried tamarind, amchoor (powdered dried mango).

                  Here are some non basics that I use often: fenugreek seeds, poppy seeds, ajwain seeds, sesame seeds, jaggery (this is raw sugar or solidified cane juice rather, since it isn't crystalline), amsool (I've only ever seen this as dried and salt cured slices, but it is a tangy fruit like raw mangoes), sonth (dried ginger powder), khobra (dried half of a coconut), kalonji seeds (nigella).

                  As for what can be used to replace "curry powder", I agree with other posters that there is no curry powder in India. If this is a non-Indian recipe like curried egg salad, just use a generic curry powder because that is very likely what was intended. A good Indian recipe should tell you exactly what spices to use. I believe most generic curry powders are a combination of coriander, turmeric, cumin and chili. I don't like most foods that call for generic curry powder because they typically don't involve cooking/roasting the powder and I can't stand the taste of raw coriander powder and raw turmeric powder. You could use a generic curry powder to replace some of the spices in an Indian recipe, but most likely not all of them. Also you'd most likely be blooming those spices in oil which will change the flavor that the curry powder imparts to your dish.

                  1. Then, of course, there the leaf of the curry plant, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.

                    1. There are just so many types of curry... Indian, Japanese, Thai, etc. To me, authenticity depends on your frame of reference, as others have alluded to here. My take: pick what tastes good to YOU =)

                      1. Lots of info here.

                        Whatever you do try, here are a few thoughts/tips:

                        - If you're going to go buy spices, it's really worth it to find a local Indian market and go there - dirt cheap good spices.. supermarket prices will be prohibitive. Or you could find a place to mail-order from.

                        - Toasting actual whole spices in a pan (gotta watch it closely) does amazing things for them and the scent of your kitchen (and the taste of your food).

                        - You can co-op the electric coffee grinder to grind the toasted spices, without too much damage to the next brew of coffee.. or at least the one after that.

                        - If you're going to an Indian market anyway, might as well pick a cheap curry powder brand there and try that too. The non-supermarket brands (that is, whatever the Indians actually use) are of course better.

                        I have some smallish Ball jars that I got and that's where I put spices bought at Indian markets - you get so much for so little. I've relegated an entire deep drawer to these jars of spices.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Cinnamon

                          As the desecendant of New England/Canada/Egg Salad curry powder people I don't have too much to add here, but I must say I am quite fond of coffee ground (especially chicory) shortly after the curry spices are ground in the same grinder, it can add quite a nice flavor. Go easy on the cream and enjoy. If it's too much add a little fresh ground nutmeg.

                          1. re: sailormouth

                            Actually I love that too. (Not so sure about the fenugreek though!)

                          2. re: Cinnamon

                            I keep a separate grinder for my spices. You can get one for around 10 bucks. I hate flavored coffee, even if I've flavored it myself.

                          3. There are a lot of mediocre steam-table restaurants in Jackson Heights, NYC which cater to an almost exclusively Indian and Pakistani crowd. I suspect a lot of them use curry powder. Probably Bolst's. Why not? It's a cheap short cut, it's fast, and they're serving fast food. I'm sure there are a lot of middle-class families in Delhi and Bombay where the harried wife (or husband) uses it. So, in that sense, it's authentic; maybe, sad to say, it's the new authentic, and as prosperity comes to the subcontinent, people will reminisce about how their grandmas used to use real spices.

                            There are of course better curry powders. Many many different kinds, usually called masalas. Some are pastes, they taste better than powder.