Thursday, January 27, 2011

Curry Masala

It was suggested to me by a friend from work who loves Indian food that I should discuss the differences between what we in the Western World call “curry” and “masala.” In my research for this project, I have come across some very confused visions of these “dishes,” and was asked by my mother what I meant when I said I made curry, because all she could think of was the spice, a key ingredient to many curry dishes, but by no means the defining factor. There is also, I feel I should point out, the popular Japanese curry, which is a little different than Indian curry – it's always seemed saucier to me, is often made with beef, and is generally milder than its Indian counterpart. (My favorite Japanese curry involves honey and apples.)

I shall start out by saying that I have noticed both “curry” and “masala” translated as “stew,” hence the title of my previous blog entry. As a verb, stew means “to undergo cooking by simmering or slow boiling,” and as a noun “a preparation of meat, fish, or other food cooked by stewing, esp. a mixture of meat and vegetables.” (Definitions found here.) Both masala and curry dishes do fit these descriptions. They are a simmered combination of vegetables and occasionally meats (chicken curry and chicken tikka masala, as examples), but probably not what comes to most Westerners' minds when they think of stew, which has generally been described to me as a thick soup with less broth and chunks of vegetables. I have eaten stew with bread, but I don't recall ever putting it over rice. Also, many Westerners are a bit mistaken on their image of masala, but we'll get to that later.

Though there is a curry tree, and its leaves are ground up and used to flavor curry dishes, particularly in South India, curry powder is something a little different. Outside of India, curry powder has become standardized, making many curry dishes taste very similar to each other, but within India, varying blends are in wide use because no specific ingredients are required to make curry, just as no particular ingredients are requirements for stew. (Very similar to the story of chai, or chai latte as it is perhaps more properly termed since “chai” simply means “tea” in many South Asian languages, while we Westerners mean something more specific when using the term. The phrase “chai tea” is frustratingly redundant to me.)

The truth is no one really knows why we in English call this Indian stew-like dish curry. To quote from Wikipedia's entry on curry: “In Urdu, an official language of Pakistan, curry is usually referred to as saalan (سالن). The equivalent word for a spiced dish in Hindi-Urdu is masaledar (i.e. with masala).” Wikipedia also points out that one native word for what we think of as curry “tari” is derived from the Persian word “tar” which means “wet.” So curry could be thought of as any dish that can be considered wet. (And I have yet to have a curry that wasn't saucy.)

Now let's look at the term “masala,” which literally means “mixture,” implying a mixture of spices in this case. Masala is a term that pops up in many different dishes: chana masala (chana is Hindi for chickpea), chicken tikka masala (tikka essentially means chunked), and – oh, look at this! – masala chai (“spiced tea”). Incidentally, it is masala chai that most Westerners think of as “chai tea.”

So if curry is wet, and masala is a blend of spices, then they really aren't two different kinds of dishes at all! Chicken tikka masala (spiced chunks of chicken) is a kind of curry, though, I feel I should point out, masala chai is not.

In short: masala is the blend of spices one puts into, among other things, curry, a wet mixture of stewed vegetables and sometimes meat, to add flavor. Now that isn't so hard to keep straight, is it?

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