The other day I was telling my friend about our new Indian Masala mixes that we created with Chef MacLarty from Bollywood Theater in Portland, OR. The first words out of his mouth were, “I don’t like curry.” Sheesh! If I only had a rupee for every time I heard someone say this.
The weird thing is that there only appears to be two answers an American can give when asked “Do you like Indian food?”
“I don’t like curry” “I LOVE Indian food.”
It’s kind of like Donald Trump. There ain’t much middle ground.
The funny thing is, those who say they don’t like curry aren’t usually sure exactly what they mean.
Here is the definition of curry from Merriam-Webster:
"A food, dish, or sauce in Indian cuisine seasoned with a mixture of pungent spices; also: a food or dish seasoned with curry powder"
The thing is, there are literally thousands of curries. There are hot ones, mild ones, pungent ones, creamy ones and sweet ones. There are curries from India, Thailand, China and Sri Lanka to name a few. Saying you don’t like curry is kind of like saying you don’t like sauces.
I think most of the confusion is due to a spice blend called curry powder. I’m sure you’ve seen this on the shelf at the supermarket. Curry powder is a commercially prepared mixture of spices which is largely a Western concoction, dating to the 18th century. Such mixtures are commonly thought to have first been prepared by Indian merchants for sale to members of the British Colonial government and army returning to Britain. (According to my friends at Wikipedia.)
Just to make matters even more confusing, there's the curry leaf. Sometimes it's used in curries. Sometimes not.
I really have no idea who uses curry powder. But believe it or not, you can dislike curry powder and still like Indian food. Just like you can dislike Lawry’s Seasoning Salt and still like salt.
Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, why don’t most Americans like Indian food?
Well, some of the spices commonly found in Indian food aren’t normally used in Western cuisine. Cardamom, coriander, fenugreek and turmeric aren’t exactly American staples. These spices have distinctive aromas and tastes. They are different, and different can be perceived as bad on first take.
Remember what you thought of beer, wine and coffee the first time you tried them? Yechhhh! You couldn’t believe adults drank the stuff. For social reasons, you came back and tried them again. And one day, you probably started really enjoying them. Hey, at least I sure do!
Of course we’re talking about acquired tastes. Takes time to get used to new flavors. We realized that Budweiser didn’t equal all beer just as Folgers didn’t equal all coffee. (Thank you, Lord.)
There are microbrews and craft coffee roasters. There are thousands of varieties and flavors within each category. You might dislike some types of beer, wine and coffee and love others. Just as you like some American food and dislike others.
Indeed, Indian food is definitely an acquired taste for Americans. But it’s one of the most interesting, complex and rewarding cuisines for those willing to experiment and come back for more.
Unfortunately, the quality of most Indian restaurants in this country isn’t so good. Most offer an Americanized version of Indian food based on Northern Indian cuisine which tends to be heavy on the clarified butter and cream. Menus almost always include Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Curry and Samosas. And while I like these dishes, these are a bit like the cheeseburgers and pizza of Indian food.
A few years ago, I stumbled on Chef Troy MacLarty’s Indian restaurants in Portland, Oregon. My mind was totally blown. After spending a substantial amount of time in India, Chef MacLarty learned how to cook food from all over the country. Since the Chef was classically trained at the world renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley, he wan’t interested in offering up Indian clichés. Instead, he filled his menu with dishes like Aloo Tikki, Pav Bhaji and Kati Rolls. Instead of using one spice mix (most Indian restaurants have one Garam Masala that they use for everything) Chef MacLarty uses dozens.
Chef MacLarty is making some of the most exciting Indian food this side of the Lakshadweep Sea. I wish every American who thinks they don’t like curry could bite into one Chef MacLarty’s Kati Rolls. Or get to sample his Dahi Papri Chaat, kind of like Indian nachos. The typical American view of Indian food would be turned on its head. It’s no wonder his restaurants are as packed as Old Delhi at sundown.
You can start making Indian food by picking up our masala mixes and trying the recipes inside. It's not a quick meal to be sure. Indian cooking takes time. But like I said, there are big rewards. If you're looking for cookbook recommendations, I'd pick up anything by Vikram Vij and Madhur Jaffrey.
So what exactly was my friend trying to say when he told me, “I don’t like curry?”
I think he was really saying, “To be honest, Scott, I don’t know Indian Curry from Steph Curry. Back in 1989 after a night on the town, I was dragged to a less than sanitary Indian restaurant that served rich northern Indian food. I accidentally bit into a cardamom pod in my samosa. I grabbed my napkin and acted like Tom Hanks in "Big" after he tried caviar.”