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Think you know curry? Think again

Curry is often associated with Indian food - and curry powder is thought of as its key ingredient. This is a misconception, though, because authentic Indian food does not contain curry powder.

In India, the word "curry" means gravy or sauce. Many Indian dishes call for powdered spice mix in the sauce, often a blend of spices known as garam masala, mixed with coriander powder and turmeric.

In India, Indians would be confused if you mentioned curry powder, as curry mixes can include so many different things. Curry, with many different flavors, can be Bangladeshi, Indian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Thai or from any other South Asian cuisine, and it has been adopted into all the mainstream cuisines of the Asia-Pacific region.

Curry has become an international dish recognized the world over, usually served as a stewlike dish with many spices and seasonings. It can be flavored with hot, sweet and sour tastes depending on the region from which it hails.

Curry may or may not be made with curry powder. The curry powder available in the supermarket is not a single spice but a blend of spices, including black pepper, chili powder, cloves, coriander seeds, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, ginger, turmeric and nutmeg. You can buy ready-mixed curry powder in the spice aisle of your grocery store or make your own at home.

Different types of curry use different main ingredients, depending on the region of India. Curry from the Punjab region, for instance, is heavy on the butter and cream. Curry from Southern India usually has coconut and coconut milk as well as curry leaves. To make things more confusing, curry powder may contain curry leaves, which come from the curry tree (or curry leaf tree), which is native to India. So, it is actually impossible to have a uniform curry powder to be added to anything to make a curry.

The real Indian curry is a wonder of coordination and expertise, and it uses the precise spices that make a balanced dish. It is not cooked heavily with a flavor of chilis, as most western curry fans like to believe. Each single spice that goes into making the curry powder has a specific role in aiding digestion and helping in absorption of just the right nutrients from the food.

When a curry is being cooked, one has to start with the base sauce, then add the curry powder, the stock or water and the vegetables or meats, then simmer on low heat for that perfect taste. In fact, one would find the famous curry powder in very few Indian kitchens.

Gitika Baveja, a high-tech worker and fan of Indian cooking, recently published her first cookbook, "Indian Flavors to Savor." For more information, e-mail [email protected]

Salmon Curry

1 cup tomato puree or sauce

1/2 red onion, finely chopped

5-6 small pieces of skinned salmon (approximately 1/2-1 lb. from fillet)

1 teaspoon garlic paste

1 teaspoon ginger paste

10-12 fresh curry leaves, chopped

2-3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1/2 teaspoon mustard seed

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon garam masala powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground spice mixture, made from 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 4-5 whole black peppercorns, 1 dry whole red chili and 1/2 teaspoon poppy seeds

Salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon brown sugar

1 cup water

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

In pan, heat oil and temper mustard seeds until they start turning gray and crackle. Add chopped onions and curry leaves. Fry onions until light brown. Add garlic paste, ginger paste and turmeric powder. Fry for 2 minutes. Add canned puree/sauce and cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes.

In coffee grinder, grind spice mixture given above. Add sugar, spice mixture and garam masala to curry and stir well. Cook until sauce thickens and oil starts to separate from sides. Add salmon pieces. Add 1 cup water and let simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes or until salmon is done.

Sprinkle chopped cilantro leaves just before serving. Serve hot with basmati rice.

Note: You can lightly fry salmon before adding to curry in 2 tablespoons oil, if you like.

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