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Apr 30, 2007 05:50 AM

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.