I just can’t get enough curry. Ever since reacquainting myself with India 3 years ago, my craving is just about insatiable. Now, it isn’t just the taste that I’m hungering for, it is also the way it makes me feel. Before my trip in 2003, I actually was quite concerned that my finicky digestive tract would not appreciate the sometimes fiery combinations of spices that are the signature of Indian cuisine. But quite to the contrary, I was surprised to find that as long as they weren’t too oily, curried dishes were easy to digest and I’d go so far as to claim that they imparted to me a general sense of well-being. Any experienced traveler will probably agree that an ethnic or regional cuisine never is quite as good outside its own locale, no matter how authentic the recipe, the ingredients or the restaurant. You never can quite bring it home – as if there is some ‘X factor’ missing. Maybe it’s the air or the cultural ambiance and energy, maybe it’s the state of heightened awareness when traveling in a foreign land, or maybe it’s the irreplaceably deft hand of a native chef… Or, maybe it’s a result of an unrealistic expectation that an appropriately prepared meal will transport not only the palate, but one’s entire being to a distant place.
Nevertheless, after returning home, I decided to incorporate a steady regimen of curried dishes into my diet. That meant learning to make them myself because restaurants are at best an occasional treat -besides which Indian restaurant fare in this country generally offers only a narrow regional cuisine (from the northern state of Punjab). So, I picked up a few books, scoured the internet, queried a few Indian friends and even took a class once. But mostly, I began to practice a lot, with family and friends serving as willing (mostly friends) or unwilling (mostly family) guinea pigs. While by no means a gourmet cook, I can at this point make a passable dish or two.
Now, the first lesson in Indian cooking is to find out what ‘curry’ really is. In the West, we associate it with a yellowish powder made up of various spices. In India and Sri Lanka, the word indicates a dish made with sauce or liquid. So, aside from rice, various types of flatbreads, and a few other items, most everything served is in fact a curry. People therefore might refer to the ‘curries we had at supper’ or ‘the special eggplant curry’, etc.
Although a number of theories about the origins of the word ‘curry’ exist, it is generally believed that it comes from India and was incorporated into English during the British colonial era (1757-1947). The most commonly cited derivation is from ‘kari’, which means a ‘spiced sauce’ in the south Indian language of Tamil. (An interesting alternative explanation makes reference to an Old English word ‘cury’, derived from the French ‘cuire’ (to cook), which has been found in cookbooks dating back to the 14th century.)
However the word came into our lexicon, the curry powders used in the West are thought to be a convenience invented by the British to approximate the taste and simplify the cooking of Indian ‘curries’. Instead of stocking a wide variety of spices and learning how to use each individual one as native cooks do, one merely adds a teaspoonful or two of a flavorful, balanced blend.
A common implement in an Indian kitchen, equivalent to our spice rack, is a round stainless steel tray on which is placed a number of small stainless containers filled with the most common spices. These are usually used at the beginning of the cooking process. In addition, there is a wide variety of powdered spice blends, known as ‘masalas’, each specific to a certain type of dish, which are used in addition to the basic spices and tend to consist of heat sensitive spices added toward the end of the cooking process. The make-up of curry powders found in the West varies both in the type and number of spices. Of the six to fifteen or so ingredients found in most blends, nearly all them will contain as core constituents coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric and fenugreek seeds. Additional spices are generally added from the following: cloves, garlic, curry leaves (These are small green leaves with a slight bitter taste that are almost impossible to find in this country as a separate spice, either fresh or dried. I took to stuffing a fresh bunch in the depths of my baggage when returning home from my last trip and freezing them.), fennel seeds, ginger, mustard seeds, chili pepper, black pepper, cassia, poppy seeds, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
While each spice contributes its own taste, as well as nutritive and therapeutic qualities to the blend, the ‘core four’ are a balanced combination that stabilize the flavor and energy of the food. They enhance digestion and calm the ‘dosha’, the three basic energetic qualities of Vata, Pitta and Kapha (sometimes translated as wind, fire and water) described in Ayurveda, the ancient indigenous medicine of the Indian subcontinent.
In recent years, turmeric especially has been the focus of great interest amongst medical researchers. Its properties appear to range from antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and antioxidant to protecting the cardiovascular system and promoting mental acuity.
Last night I watched the charming movie “Spellbound”, a documentary focusing on eight early adolescent contestants in the 1999 national spelling bee championship. One of the many interesting things that caught my attention was that out of the 249 regional winners who made it to the nationals, a disproportional number were of East Indian descent. What’s more, they seemed to be the elite even amongst this select group. The odds on favorite to win was an Indian, as well as two of the eight documentary ‘stars’ – one of whom turned out to be the eventual champion.
It is well known that in India, families place a strong emphasis on education, academic competition is fierce and students are generally highly motivated. When Tom Friedman of the NY Times cautions us in his book ‘The World is Flat’ that the United States is fast losing its premiere position in the global market economy, this is one of the factors that he cites. But I am wondering whether there is something more than cultural priorities at work here.
Simply put, I come away from so many of my own interactions with Indians, which admittedly are mostly with the educated strata of Indian society, struck with their mental acuity. I know this might be treading on thin ice in terms of the political correctness of stereo typing an ethnic group – even in a positive light. But, in fact, I am consistently left with this impression.
This notion was recently reinforced when I learned that India has some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s Disease in the world. According to a joint study conducted by the UCLA Medical School and the Veterans Administration originally published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in December of 2004, among adults ages 70-79, the rate of Alzheimer’s in India is only 25% of that in the United States.
It got me thinking that perhaps there really might be some correlation between this research and my own observations. But what could be the reason? Any number of possibilities come to mind: genes, cultural habits, educational priorities, environmental factors… Or maybe it is just in the water.
That isn’t as tongue and cheek as it might sound. The scientists who conducted this study, in fact, believe it probably is in the food. They posit that a substance found in one of the spices used in curry acts to protect the brain. It not only prevents the formation of the amyloid plaques that devastate normal brain function, it also prevents them from forming. It was found that in studies with mice, the isolated active ingredient is more effective than many drugs being touted for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Turmeric is the stuff that makes curry yellow, the stuff that makes a stain from curry sauce so indelible. In fact, aside from its culinary function, it is commonly used as a yellow dye. As a medicinal herb, it has been used by both Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) and Oriental physicians for several thousand years. Turmeric contains a family of bioactive compounds called ‘curcuminoids’, one of which is curcumin (or ‘diferulyl methane’).
Curcumin, which makes up some 2 to 5% of turmeric, is the substance that has been the focus of this research. Its medicinal action has been the subject of much scientific study for many years. For instance, in 2001 the same researchers published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience describing it as a powerful anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory.
These properties make it valuable not only for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s but also in a host of degenerative and /or inflammatory diseases such as cancer, heart disease and arthritis.
It is worthwhile to emphasize one need not use pure curcumin to gain its benefits. One older person was so impressed by her response to adding turmeric to her diet, mostly by way of curry powder, that she created an entire website dedicated to it. (http://www.lionsgrip.com/curintro.html) She reported that (my) “Memory, word recall, handwriting (which had become shaky), and rather large need for sleep, all improved greatly in this near-instantaneous time. Most importantly, the ability to keep several things in mind returned to mid-adult level.”
Scientific research notwithstanding, the capacity to stimulate brain function has been understood for centuries. As one old herbal compendium puts it, turmeric is useful “for getting rid of vapours in the braynes".
Turmeric is an invaluable herb both as a prophylactic and for the actual treatment in a myriad of disorders. It is an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial, and therefore is useful for treating candidiasis, HIV and many other infections. It stimulates digestion and coats the stomach lining with a protective layer of mucous thus increasing absorption, eliminating gas and reducing acidity. In a similar way, it also soothes the respiratory tract and is useful for coughs and asthma. In the cardiovascular system, it lowers cholesterol and stimulates circulation.
Curry, of course, has much more to it than just turmeric. Each ingredient contributes not only to the overall flavor, but also to its therapeutic value. As just one example, Fenugreek aids in digestion, regulates blood sugar levels, expectorates mucous reducing congestion in the sinuses, and soothes inflammation, amongst other things.
All the other spices commonly found in various curry powders, such as cumin, coriander, ginger, mustard, cloves, garlic, fennel, cayenne possess their own specific actions.
Best of all, this delectable seasoning is readily available to us at little cost and no the side-effects – except an occasional stain on the shirt.