Curries are a centuries-old staple in Southwest and Southeast Asian cuisines that saw popularity in mainstream America predominantly in restaurants until only a short while ago. In the last decade, demand suddenly went up for prepared dishes, sides, sauces and condiments that fulfilled the cravings for curry and related cuisines. This came as a post-immigration generation assimilated into the fast-paced “no time to cook,” American lifestyle.


Simultaneously, these new Americans introduced the non-Asian demographic to a trove of exciting flavors from this exotic region.


Rooted in flavorful spices, oils, vegetables and herbs, prepared curry dishes, components and related products are filling retail shelves as never before. Food manufacturers, taking inspiration from such global recipes, are re-imagining traditional foods—including curries—not only from India, but from Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and other countries.


In addition to cultural influences driving the popularity of curries in recent years, the health boom also has proven to be a powerful component. Many of the traditional ingredients used to make curries are healthy and packed with nutraceutical compounds, such as phytochemicals and antioxidants. Also, with more Americans embracing a vegetarian diet, vegetarian or predominantly plant-based “foreign” foods are seen to provide variety and taste complexity.

According to a December 2013 survey by Mintel Group Ltd., 47% of those polled were “willing to spend more on authentic ethnic cuisines.” But this was not just a willingness to go to the local curry house. According to the same survey, more respondents create these foods at home, using packaged foods or meal kits.


Even with the burgeoning popularity of curry dishes, many consumers still think of curry as a single “spice,” like cinnamon or cumin. Typically, “curry spice” is a spice blend—a garam masala. Although garam masala changes from region to region, the mix commonly is made with some combination of pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, ginger, cumin and turmeric.


Curry spice blends originally were developed by Indian traders to help returning British rulers and expatriates replicate the taste of Indian curries at home in England. After Indian independence in 1947, the curry spice trade boomed.


India is considered the birthplace of curries, and its particular style has influenced all curries throughout South Asian cuisine. However, each region puts its own culinary spin. There are unique methods and ingredients that separate Indian from Sri Lankan curries, Malaysian from Thai curries, etc.

Regional taste differences abound within each country, as well, with hundreds of curry variations throughout India alone. Many Americans have recently begun to understand, and seek out, these regional taste differences (and, therefore, curry variations).


Name That Spice


While there is no standard classification, one can generally group curries into the following traditions for convenience:


• Mughlai/Northern Indian curries—a blend of ancient Indian and Persian cuisine, found mostly in Northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tend to be rich, heavy, tomato-based curries incorporating vegetables such as onions, ginger, and garlic. They employ spices, such as clove and cardamom, plus cream, butter and nuts. Popular dishes such as butter chicken, korma, roghan josh and karahi (a popular Pakistani dish), fall into this category.


• South Indian Cuisine—Southern India, a hotter region, means the curries tend to be lighter in texture, yet spicier, with chili peppers. They most often are made with coconut milk or cream. Dried fish may commonly be incorporated into these curries. Curries from the Indian Subcontinent (e.g., Goa, Kerala, Madras/Chennai, etc.) and the island country of Sri Lanka fall into this category.


• Southeast Asian Cuisine-Seafood, including fish sauce or shrimp paste, is a signature ingredient in these curries. Unlike their Indian counterparts, these tend to be heavy on fresh herbs, such as basil, lemongrass and cilantro.


For food manufacturers interested in adapting curry recipes for prepared meals, meal kits, sauces and ready-to-prepare products. it’s best to focus on ingredients and techniques that most closely replicate homemade authenticity. If made right, one does not need stabilizers or gums to create Southeast or South Asian curries. However, some processors use them to save money and or cut processing time.

The best way to bring out the layers of flavor in curry is to sauté the ingredients. This allows the various spices and pastes to develop curry’s signature depth of taste.


South Asian Fundamentals


“Food from these Asian regions is characterized as flavorful, spicy and artistic with a myriad combination of the basic tastes,” notes Anju Rao, PhD, a director of R&D for Campbell Soup Co. “The presence of ‘heat’ commonly expected in these cuisines allows for the delivery of flavor beyond that of salt and its perception.”


Rao singles out the methods of marination, sautéing and layering of flavors that focus on a single ingredient at a time as fundamental. He concludes that, while time-consuming, such methodology “contributes to an eating journey that is at once basic, yet complex.”


Many people mistakenly associate heat with chilies. Actually, the heat in curries and related cuisines involves much more. For example, in Indian curries, it is a combination of ingredients, such as onion, ginger, garlic and a variety of spices—like cloves and black cardamom—that supply a little fire. The combination generates a depth of warmth vs. spiciness on the tongue.


In Southeast Asian cuisine, such as Thai dishes, it is important to balance fundamentally different tastes in each dish. For example, spicy, sour and sweet will all be included. Salty/umami fish sauce and sweet/cooling coconut milk are two signature ingredients of Thai cuisine. Herbs such as Thai
basil, cilantro, lemongrass and galangal, create deliciously aromatic dishes to round out the complete finished product and hit all flavor points.


“Common ingredients and cooking techniques weave a familiar flavor,” adds Rao. “For example, Thai chicken curry and Indian chicken curry both incorporate ginger, coconut and chili peppers. However, the delicate balance of these flavors—along with differences in preparation and the addition of other ingredients unique to the region—will results in an experience that distinguishes one from the other.”


“My quest to create Red Thai Curry and Lemongrass Basil (essentially a green curry) for this line led me to create my own curries from scratch,” says John Umlauf, senior VP, culinary operations, American Halal Co. Inc. American Halal is the parent company of Saffron Road, a company that could be said to have led the breakthrough into mainstream America for South Asian cuisine.


Saffron Road began with high-quality, frozen traditional Indian curries and other dishes and rapidly branched off into appetizers, sides and snacks. Its line of shelf-stable, pouched “Simmer Sauces” have been enjoying strong success, and the company is broadening its geographic horizons with Southeast Asian offerings.


“The authentic curry pastes from Thailand that I originally planned to use could not be made to meet our specifications of non-GMO, clean label and kosher,” continues Umlauf. “All of these are requirements for ingredients in this product line.”


Umlauf studied the best and most authentic curry pastes from Thailand and determined that ground coriander seed, ground cumin, kaffir lime, galangal, ginger, and red or green bird’s eye chili peppers “formed the heart” of a good Thai curry paste. “Garlic, salt and some kind of sweetener are needed to balance the flavors and complement the coconut milk typical of a Thai sauce” he says. “I also add the heat at the end, since that is something that can be easily adjusted once the sauce is built.”


While it is not uncommon for many Southeast Asian dishes to include table sugar for the sweet component, Umlauf chose apple juice concentrate as a “natural, non-refined sweetener” and balanced it with fresh garlic and sea salt.


“The key to getting a great typical Thai flavor is balancing the cumin and coriander just right, with an edge toward the coriander, and then wrapping it in a combination of coconut milk and lemongrass, with a touch of lime,” he says. “Then the heat goes in—either green or red chili peppers. A splash of chopped Thai basil leaves is added as a finishing touch. We source those in pure, IQF form in order to ensure consistent availability and fresh flavor.”


For the final versions of the two new Saffron Road Thai curry sauces, Umlauf opted to make the Red Thai Curry very spicy, and keep the Lemongrass Basil at a mild-to-medium level. The latter also was given an authentic green color by adding puréed green Anaheim chili peppers. “Using all bird’s eye peppers would have made it screaming hot,” he says, “but it is all a matter of preference.”


Curry’s Melting Pot


Malaysian food is an example of a trending South Asian cuisine to which the American palate has opened. In fact, the national Restaurant Assn. named Malaysian food “one of the top three trending flavors in the US for 2014.”


According to the Malaysian External Trade Development Corp., there was a record increase in exports of Malaysian food and beverage products into the US between January and April last year, totaling almost $150 million, and up nearly 23% over the previous year. The researchers further reported that the US “currently ranks as the fifth-largest trading terminal for Malaysian food export.”


Brands such as Brahim’s Products Inc. and Dollee Ltd. are providing authentic Malaysian products for retail. Brahim’s offerings include curry pastes and sauces, such as rendang, peanut sauce, coconut curry sauce, hoisin chicken and curry sauce, and Dollee’s markets cooking pastes and sauces, such as curry laksa paste, nasi lemak sambal and crispy prawn chili, as well as confectionery products.


One leading processor of this cuisine, Malaysia Kitchen USA, plans to import several hundred new Malaysian food and beverage products into the US by year’s end. The company brought aboard chef, author and spice expert Christina Arokiasamy as its “Malaysian Food Ambassador.”


With growing consumer demand for Southeast Asian ingredients and easy-to-prepare meals growing, Malaysia Kitchen enlisted Arokiasamy to promote the accessibility and convenience of the country’s cuisine and products to American consumers. Arokiasamy has described the cuisine as being “comprised of a melting pot of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Nonya cultures,” writing that “Malaysian food has yet to be fully discovered and explored in the US,” and noting that it “sounds intimidating to the home cook.”

Malaysia Kitchen’s line of accessible, “all-natural, value-driven, easy-to-prepare and authentic Malaysian food and beverage products” have been designed to offer consumers healthy Malaysian curries and other cuisine “from packet to plate, at their convenience.” The line currently includes ready-to-eat meals, frozen foods, sauces, marinades, spices, noodles, flour mixes and beverages.


Bringing it Together


“One of the challenges we faced in scaling our chefs’ recipes and cooking methods was achieving the same surface-to-heat ratio in steps such as sautéing the spices in oil,” says Dot Hall, product development lead for Seven Spoons Food Inc. Seven Spoons produces internationally inspired skillet meals that replicate restaurant-style dishes from around the world through easy-to-prepare meal kits.


Seven Spoons uses a unique product development approach, employing a global panel of chefs to craft the meals. “Using large kettles makes it difficult to get the same flavor extraction as in the home kitchen, due to the design of the agitators and the low volume at that stage of the recipe. Flavor bases and concentrates can be used to facilitate manufacturing, but the goal is to keep the sensory attributes of the finished product as close to the chefs’ recipes as possible to maintain authenticity.”


“Curry flavors and dishes open many opportunities for food companies,” says Susan Mayer, MS CFS, innovation advisor for research group RTI International. “US consumers always look for new flavors and twists on familiar foods—a perfect fit for curry. Restaurants have been experimenting with curry flavors, South Asian vegetables and cooking techniques for some time.”


Mayer cites such items as tandoori chicken pizza, curry chicken wings, tikka masala, vegetable curry wraps; as well as salads with chickpeas, condiments like sriracha, and lentil soups and stews.

“Incorporating curry flavors does not mean abandoning local or regional suppliers,” adds Mayer. “Most ingredients used in curries are available in any market. Adding just a few ingredients strategically from India or Southeast Asia can transform the product or dish to a new experience in family meals and other food occasions.”


Gurpreet Dham is one of the chefs serving on Seven Spoons’ panel of international culinary consultants. He recently returned from a “curry sojourn” to India that focused on understanding the latest trends in curries and in South Asian cuisine as a whole. Sampling offerings from local “roadside” stops called dhabas to fine-dining establishments opened a window on changes happening in South Asian gastronomy.


Trends noted by Dham included an increased awareness around health concerns like hypertension; a re-emphasis on cooking with authentic and natural ingredients; plus a recent movement toward avoiding the use of colorants. Importantly, Dham noticed an interest in fusion: the borrowing of techniques from other cultures and cuisines to enhance traditional flavors and bring out unique flavors.


Goan Authentic


“Many of our sauces use a South Indian tarka technique,” says Maya Kaimal, founder and CEO of Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods LLC. Tarka involves tempering whole spices in hot oil or ghee (clarified butter) to release and enhance the flavor- filled essential oils.


“This technique poses a challenge on many levels for curry leaves,” says Kaimal. “Curry leaves grow only in tropical climes and need to be used while still fresh.”


According to Kaimal, it can be a challenge getting fresh curry leaves and keeping them viable. “Curry leaves lose nearly all their flavor when dried,” she adds.


As with most spices and herbs, the flavor notes of curry leaves—as well as many of the healthful components—reside in the volatile oils. “The urge of suppliers, manufacturers and processors is to dry or freeze them, but this can accelerate oxidization and damage the leaves.” Kaimal says that if they must be frozen, vacuum packing and then freezing curry leaves is the best approach. “It’s the kind of thing I can’t bear to stint on,” she emphasizes.


Curry leaves are an entirely different spice from the blends of spices called curry powder. Curry leaves, also called “sweet neem leaves,” are from a tree related to citrus and native to India and Sri Lanka. They are prized for aromatic, citrus-like qualities. They also are prized for a number of well-studied health qualities, as with other herb and spice components in South Asian cuisine.


“The best way to capture the citrus-like essence of curry leaves is by dropping them into hot—350°F—oil,” explains Kaimal. “They will crackle and sputter, but they contribute a wonderful, herbal aroma to the oil. At the same time, brown mustard seeds also are commonly added to the oil. The high heat makes them pop due to the moisture inside them. This releases a nutty flavor into the oil. Traditionally, only then are the rest of the ingredients—onions, garlic, ginger, chili, ground spices, tomato—cooked in this flavorful oil.”


Kaimal acknowledges that getting oil hot enough in a batch process to transform the leaves and seeds is challenging. “Steam kettles just can’t do it,” she says. “The process needs to be done over direct flame. Different manufacturers we work with have come up with different solutions. Some use a candy cooker—a stock pot set on a free-standing, single burner gas cooker. Others use a gas stove in their R&D kitchen. One processor colleague even uses a massive bean cooker, a trough-like vessel with powerful open flames underneath.”


Kaimal notes that, for large-quantity processors, these can be “some fairly big work-arounds,” but she stresses that such crucial steps are vital to achieving authentic, South Indian flavors. Kaimal’s Goan Coconut curry sauce uses these techniques, as do the company’s Coconut Curry, Tamarind Curry and Madras Curry.


“Curries are one of the tastiest ways to incorporate the nutritional benefits of spices and vegetables into your diet,” says Dham. “With a growing number of products on the market, it’s easier than before for Americans to enjoy authentic global curries with little effort and great flavor.”