Food: The curry powder conundrum

I love Indian food! I add curry powder to a lot of dishes!” I hear this enthusiastic statement a lot when I meet someone in Italy for the first time.

You can imagine the puzzled smile on my face as I quietly wonder what this magical curry powder is and why I have never seen or heard of it in my entire life in India! Not too different from the ready-made Italian herb mix and Italian salad dressing we use to dredge our salads and pastas in India – mention this to my Italian husband and watch his confused reaction.

Authentic and accurate

Upon further research, I learn that curry powder is a mixture of several spices (including ginger powder) created by the British to evoke the essence of Indian cuisine. That’s great for convenience, but hey, come on, how can one size fit all? Every Indian dish has its own mix and balance of spices and flavors, and not everything is yellow, is it?

Natasha Celmi (right) refines chickpeas - an ingredient familiar to Europeans - into a delicious homemade chole
Natasha Celmi (right) refines chickpeas – an ingredient familiar to Europeans – into a delicious homemade chole

The British adopted Indian food during their time here and created their own British Indian cuisine (dishes like Madras curry and Bombay potatoes unique to the UK). In recent years, several Indian chefs and trendy restaurants have made their mark on the London gastronomic scene, offering both modern and regional cuisine. However, the Indian food scene in mainland Europe is still in its infancy. A big reason is that the cuisines of countries like France, Italy, Spain and others are phenomenal and people are very proud of their culinary heritage. But today, thanks to social media and fast global travel, everyone wants the authentic stuff. From sushi to ramen, pho to bun cha, dim sum to spicy Sichuan food, Europeans eat and cook their way through Asia.

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So it’s time to put real Indian food in the spotlight and keep the wheels turning. After moving to Germany earlier this year, I bring the flavors of Indian homeland to German and Italian cuisine through culinary workshops. It is interesting to explain our regional differences and how diverse the ingredients and dishes can be. At a cooking class in Hamburg, we prepared a Kerala-style chicken stew and a broccoli poriyal, where the elements of coconut and curry leaves, along with a lighter texture, provide a refreshing contrast to the more familiar and rich Punjabi dishes.

This group of Italians (above) cooked up an
This group of Italians (above) cooked up an “Indian storm” in the kitchen.

The technique of tempering and rustling spices delighted people tadka while you understand the meaning of ‘bhuonseasoning the spice and onion mixture to add depth—a concept interpreted by foreigners as simply overcooking.

Oh, the sheer joy of smelling, tasting and cooking bhuna jeera and coriander powder (as opposed to a curry powder premix) and the freshness of ginger and green chilies! Yes, you can find most spices in regular supermarkets and every major European city has an Asian section where you can get everything bhindi and Kadi Patta to papad. The classic masala dabba is considered a little treasure and fascinates the people who click on picture for picture.

Avid Eaters

I can now say that the Germans are an adventurous, fun people who love chili and intense flavors. I had initially reduced the mirch masala in my recipes, but the general reaction was to “keep the spice levels just like in India,” and it went on like that for another hourari mirchi.

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A very enterprising German family who learned to cook a full Indian meal when I was in Bangalore returned and prepared a Christmas celebration. hand rolled wellis included!

Kerala Chicken Stew and North Indian Chole being made in Italy
Kerala Chicken Stew and North Indian Chole being made in Italy

And what can I say about Italians who are probably the best chefs in the world? Because Italians have always had such a rich culinary culture, they were not very open to foreign cuisines. Today, while Italians are proud of their own delicious food, they have also given way to international participants. I was surprised to see a bounty of gourmet sushi at a family wedding in southern Italy last summer and I thought – these lovely folks are ready to enjoy our desi Khana!

My first cooking class in Italy (in Italian) took place in a town in Emilia Romagna. Being a more cautious group of people, their general preference was to keep the chili low. People were surprised (but later delighted) at how much garlic and ginger went in, as opposed to their meal, where whole cloves of garlic are removed. I mentioned that fennel seeds (drunk) make good mouth fresheners if they were planning to kiss someone right after an Indian meal! It was fun discussing culinary similarities—Tandoori naan against a Neapolitan pizza base, paratha vs piadina, ricotta vs paneer etc. The only point of speculation was about rice – our golden rules of not over-stirring basmati rice to keep each grain intact and allowing the moisture to dry out completely are in contrast to the Italian method of arborio rice vigorous to cook in a moist risotto.

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Indian flavors, European culture

It is important to connect with the local culture and lifestyle to make Indian cooking accessible and easy in a Western kitchen. Additionally, one-pot entrees that are light and healthy, with vibrant local produce and minimal prep, no housekeeping and busy work schedules, are key.

The Germans enjoyed making palak paneer kofta in a spiced tomato sauce (above);  Masala Chai Pannacotta with Freshly Brewed Adrak Elaichi Chai (Inset)
The Germans enjoyed making palak paneer kofta in a spiced tomato sauce (above); Masala Chai Pannacotta with Freshly Brewed Adrak Elaichi Chai (Inset)

Italian dishes are always course after course. So we made an “antipasti” or appetizer of tandoori gobhi with mint yoghurt sauce. Chickpeas are part of an Italian pantry, so we’ve elevated the humble beans to North Indian chole. My Masala Chai Pannacotta and Biscuit was a super hit in Germany. For people used to a chai pre-mix (not great), they were excited to brew their own masala chai and enjoy the aroma of the elaichi and adrak. We made palak chena kofta with ricotta in a homemade tomato sauce, and everything was slurried.

I am so proud to have this opportunity to share and showcase Indian flavors in European kitchens and connect with people about our culinary culture.

Natasha Celmi is a chef and food writer. She is the author of the award-winning cookbook Fast Fresh Flavorful. Their mantra is Smart Cooking: minimum fuss, maximum flavor using fresh local produce.

From HT Brunch, September 24, 2022

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