Curries , which are native to the Indian sub-continent, have spread all over the world and really do not need to be defined. Most people also know that curry powder is a pre-mixed blend of powdered spices that is not much used in India where cooks prefer to utilize individual spices, both whole and powdered.
Commercially available curry powder is heavy on turmeric, which is cheap; it contains very little of the more expensive aromatics such as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom etc.. Turmeric is a preservative and has little inherent flavor but it does impart the vivid yellow color that Westerners assosciate with curries. While it is true that Indians don’t normally use curry powder,the pace of modern life and the increase in the number of working wives makes it difficult to prepare everything from scratch. As a result, many Indian cooks, particularly those in the Indian diaspora, are turning to masalas.
Unlike curry powder , a masala is a customized spice mixture ( usually a powder, sometimes a paste), one for each type of curry. Thus there is one masala for kheema, another for korma, yet another for vindaloo and so on. Of the masala brands available in the U.S, Shan ( pronounced Shaan) made in Pakistan is the most popular.It also has the widest number of varieties, thirty or more, though some are better than others. Be careful when following the package directions ; they generally tell you to use too much of the masala. Other popular brands of masalas are MDH, National, Pathak’s and Everest. For South Indian dishes, MTR is generally acknowledged as the best.
In most of East Asia, the two predominant culinary influences are Chinese and Indian. Curry was introduced to these lands by traders and immigrants and in the process it has been modified to suit local tastes and by the use of local products.As one moves away from India, the Indian influence becomes less pronounced. It is strongest in Burma and Malaysia where large numbers of Indians migrated in search of work and in Thailand and Indonesia which ,at one time,were settled by Indians. In Malaysia, where a large number of Indians migrated to work in the rubber plantations the curries are perhaps closest to those found in India.
In India , no matter whether individual spices or curry powders or masalas are used, they are fried in oil before the meat or vegetables are added. Outside India, curry powders or pastes are added at a later stage in the cooking .Consequently, the rawness of the spices sometimes lingers unless tempered by the addition of coconut milk or soy sauce.
With one exception, I like all Asian curries . Malaysian curries use galangal,shrimp paste, fennel and star anise, making them subtly different from those in India. In Thailand, where the Chinese and Indian culinary influences are about even, one side of the menu featuring stirfries and noodle dishes, the other curries.The Thais use several different curry pastes (red,yellow, green, Penang, Massaman etc.) and other flavorings such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and peels, coconut milk and shrimp paste. My favorites are the Penang curry, red curry and Isan fish curry. Vietnamese curries are made with curry powder, coconut milk and lemon grass and are more like soup-stews. When it is cold outside,what could be better than a bowl of Vietnamese chicken curry with plenty of that excellent Vietnamese bread to sop it up. As far as Chinese curry dishes are concerned, one of my favorite dishes in N.Y Chinatown restaurants was the Curry Braised Beef with Onions over rice.
Japanese curries are the only ones I don’t care for since they are made with commercial curry powder and have a gloppy texture. However the Japanese like them just fine. Some years ago, school children in Japan were polled to find what their favorite school lunch was. The overwhelming favorite… Kare-raisu, or curry rice. A Japanese man even tried to patent curry, submitting a perfectly horrible recipe with his patent application. As far as I know, he didn’t win a patent !