Madras Curry Blend by Raghavan Iyer

Madras Curry Blend by Raghavan Iyer

JEWEL IN THE CROWN - an excerpt from the cookbook On The Curry Trail 


Madras curry powder is a perfect example of Britain’s colonialist tendency to simplify and package all that was foreign, complex, and “exotic.” India, their “jewel in the crown” (which they inhabited, first as traders and then as rulers, from 1608 to 1947), enticed Britain with its aromatic, peppery, complexly layered, 6,000-year-old dishes: There is evidence of mortars and pestles having been used in the 4000 BCE Mohenjo-Daro civilization of the Indus Valley! Indian cooks had a seemingly chaotic way of spicing food—oftentimes roasting, toasting, and pounding a combination of disparate ingredients—but it resulted in flavors that were harmonious, layered, and nuanced.

In Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson takes us back to 1885 when Colonel A. R. Kenney-Herbert, a distinguished writer on the foods of the Anglo-Indians, took a stab at a “stock for curry powder.” It incorporated turmeric, coriander seed, cumin seed, fenugreek, mustard seed, dried chilies, black peppercorns, poppy seed, and dry ginger—and he offered up the recipe even though commercial curry powder mixtures were being used in Britain at the time.

For epochs prior, South Indian cooks were sun-drying these same spices to flavor signature stews called sambars. A unique combination was fashioned in each home kitchen, defying a homogeneity throughout all South Indian kitchens. However, the British creation of a uniform and good-tasting Anglo-Indian curry gained a foothold and opened the world to Madras curry powder, a simplified adaptation named after South India’s coastal city of Madras (now called Chennai).

Yes, you can procure many kinds of Madras curry powders all across the globe in the spice aisle of any supermarket, but making your own is simple, time efficient (you really can’t spare five minutes of your time to make this?), and frugal. Here is my version, used in many of the recipes in this book.

  Excerpted from On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World by Raghavan Iyer. Illustration by Neethi (@Kneethee). Workman Publishing © 2023.

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