Spices 101: What is curry powder? Garam masala? Curry leaf?

Over the past couple of years I’ve really become a hardcore fan of curries. The flavors that come out from combining the amazing blends of spices they employ are out of this world. Best of all, they’re easy. Throw a bunch of shit into a pan and 40 minutes later, there’s a complete meal which smells like upper class India. Unfortunately there’s this odd misconception people seem to have about curry in general. For most of my adult life, my mother has expressed her distaste of Indian food because she “can’t stand all the curry they use in their food!” She’s somewhat come around from that perspective from eating my cooking, but alas there are still a lot of people out there who believe ‘curry’ is some sort of single mystical spice from a far-off land. If you’re not aware, curry seasonings actually encompass a great deal of different spices such as cumin, chili powder, turmeric, etc… But there isn’t actually one single spice called “curry”.


Son of a bitch!



Okay I know what you’re thinking, but no I’m not a liar. See, we need to declare a few truths here:

  1. There is no one spice called “curry”. Curry dishes use a bunch of seasonings like cumin and turmeric and others.
  2. There are some manufacturers who create spice blends called “curry powder” based on the aforementioned spices used in curry dishes mostly in the west.
  3. There IS however a curry spice blend used in real Indian and Asian curry dishes made of other curry seasonings. This is known as ‘garam masala’.
  4. Beyond all this, there is an actual tree and herb referred to as curry plants which produce ‘curry leaves’ that do smell like curries, and get used in those types of dishes sometimes.


Right, so I know this is all really frigging confusing, but that’s why this post exists. We’re gonna distinguish between the three.


Curry Powder

Origin: Sort of Asia
Appearance: Mustard-yellow powder
Scent: Warm, spicy, almost body-odor-like
Taste: Well, um, curry
Americanized Indian/Asian/Caribbean foods
Rareness: Common

As mentioned, curry powder as we know it is more of a western thing you pick up at your local Waldbaum’s. It’s kind of like when you see those amalgamation spices like “Italian Seasoning” or “Tuscany Seasoning”. It’s not a real, single spice but rather a bunch of them blended together for convenience. Despite that, it’s mostly a western thing sold to White people who don’t know how to actually cook curry. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it lacks versatility since not every curry dish calls for the same amount of spices and same proportions.

Garam Masala

Origin: India
Appearance: Coarse, orange powder
Scent: Spicy, similar to Pumpkin-pie spice
Taste: Warm and peppery, again similar to pumpkin-pie spice
Indian, southern Asian foods
Rareness: Uncommon

Garam masala meanwhile is a set blend of various spices and herbs like pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and others. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Yep. Like I mentioned above, this stuff is actually stupendously similar to pumpkin pie spice! It’s a little more pungent and packs more of a punch, but honestly you could probably put this stuff into your latte and people would drink it up thinking it’s a pumpkin latte without question. Unlike curry powder, this is actually a common ingredient seen in authentic-ass Indian and Asian recipes for curry and other dishes. The only downside to it is that it’s somewhat tricky to find. You can find it pretty easily in Indian markets and other ethnic grocers, but your local name-brand grocery store most likely won’t stock it.


Curry Plant

Origin: India OR Africa
Appearance: Broad, green leaves OR thin pale-green leaves
Scent: Curry-like, spicy, almost mapley
Taste: Leafy, curry
Indian, southern Asian foods
Rareness: Rare


This here is a curry plant. It smells like real, actual curry. Simple enough, right? Well, to complicate things even further, there’s two plants out there known as “curry plants”. There’s the curry herb and the curry tree. The former is originally from Africa, but has a similar flavor and aroma to the latter, authentic curry tree from India. Both can be used in curry dishes and frequently are, despite the fact a curry can totally taste like curry without either of these herbs thrown into it. Truth be told, I’ve never seen a real curry tree IRL, but we did manage to get our hands on a “close enough” curry herb plant this Spring.


So yeah, curry is amazing. But the seasonings involved in it are pretty ridiculously confusing. But I guess that’s just a life lesson. The best things in life do require some effort, but boy are they worth it. And honestly, if you want to cook curry at home, the only things you really need to go out and buy are average spices like cumin, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, cinnamon, and MAYBE maybe the garam masala from this post, though most of the times it’s listed as optional. It’s a yummy dish, nutritious, and you can wow your guests with some delightful chicken pasanda that took not even an hour to make!


Posted on June 11, 2015, in Food 101 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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