The word “curry” is widely misunderstood. In the West, especially in the United States, it refers to a spice blend that is added to water, vegetables, and/ or meat to lend a distinctly Indian flavor profile.
In the South Asian mind, curry refers less to spice and more to the consistency of a dish. We rarely—if ever—cook with the spice blend known as curry. To us, curry means “gravy.” A typical Indian meal is made up of stir-fries and a curry or two, along with rice and/or bread.
So if we don’t use the spice curry, what do we use to spice our food? Answer: either whole spices, like cumin seeds, turmeric powder, and ground coriander, or spice blends, like Garam Masala and Chana Masala, which are created from whole spices and tailored to provide a precise flavor profile for a specific dish.
Indian food gets its layers of flavors by roasting and pan-frying spices in hot oils and ghee, which you can only do well if you cook with whole spices. By that, I mean spices in the form of seeds, sticks, and leaves. You can’t get the same layers of flavor with just a single blended powder, like Western curry powder. When we do add powdered spice blends, we typically do so in addition to heating whole spices in hot oil.
One exception to this rule is when you’re making dishes in a slow cooker, where the longer cooking times help draw out the essential oils from spices much as putting spices in hot oil can create.
Most folks who come to my demos and say “I don’t like the taste of curry” end up tasting my food and loving it—largely because it tastes like food, rather than chalky powder. I do use curry powder in some dishes, just for a change of pace, but not all curry powders are made the same. Some have more complex flavors than others. The only way you will know what works for you is to experiment.