Embarking on a journey to find authentic curry often finds intrepid foodservice professionals discouraged from the moment they hear an expert say, “There's no such thing as curry spice.”
“When most people think of curry, they're thinking of that jar of yellow curry powder. But curry itself isn't a spice. It's a blend of spices customized to the kind of regional or family recipe you are making,” says Neela Paniz, Indian food restauranteur and teacher, who presented at this year's Chefs Culinary Conference at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“Curry is also a stew that you create with a base of aromatics such as onions, tomatoes, green chilies, garlic, yogurt or cream, depending on the region,” says Paniz, who grew up in Bombay. “You use whole and ground spices, and you come up with a lovely paste that becomes the sauce base. Meat can cook in that and make its own stew.”
While Paniz is describing curry from India, the dish can be found all over the world, in many different guises. Curry means something different to someone in India than it does to someone in England, Thailand, Pakistan, Japan, Bangladesh and even the Caribbean. There is a big difference in style, taste and aroma, even among regions in the Indian Subcontinent.
Those distinctions, along with the knowledge that making an authentic curry requires chefs to toast many bold spices, understand many different regions, and work with ingredients they may not be familiar with, can add up to a rather intimidating task.
The good news is, there's more than one way of arriving at the destination of authentic curry.
Southeast Asia via Northwestern University
In his search for authentic curry, John Krickl, district executive chef, Campus Services, Sodexo, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, developed recipes with Thai food expert Mai Pham. As part of Northwestern's nuCuisine program, which emphasizes fresh food, consistency across dining halls and sustainability, Pham worked with the chefs to put together recipes that would be easy to prepare while hitting the right flavor notes.
“We really wanted authentic food, and these Thai and Asian Rim style dishes really are authentic if we follow the directions that have been laid out for us,” Krickl says.
Northwestern chefs also achieve authentic curry flavors by incorporating a few prepared sauce bases, then adding a protein and finishing with rice or naan bread.
The prepared sauces are from a great manufacturer that gives really good menu suggestions, and they save a lot of labor, Krickl says. Sure, you may not be toasting and grinding every single spice, but it's a great way for foodservice operations to achieve the right flavors.
Krickl and his team are in constant pursuit of authenticity for many different types of ethnic food favorites, he says, with a popular visiting chef program and several educational cooking events throughout the year.
He also put on a special white-tablecloth meal for four students who won a contest by getting their “passports” stamped at six different dining halls (each featuring a visiting chef from a different country).
“Everyone goes from dining hall to dining hall with a passport and gets it stamped and those who collect all six stamps enter into the drawing,” Krickl says.
“I taught a mini-course on Asian dishes, and as soon as I fried the cumin, a student came up to me and said, ‘That just brought me back to my childhood home in India.’ It's so gratifying to be able to do that for someone,” Krickl says. “At that point, it makes the quest for authenticity all worthwhile.”
Another Route to Authenticity
When an employee resource group at BlueCross BlueShield of Florida in Jacksonville called Associated Voices of Asia South (AVAS) voiced their desire for authentic Indian food in the servery two years ago, Damian Monticello weighed his options.
Monticello, corporate foodservice liaison, Engineering and Building Services, knew that Indian food was labor intensive from the very first step. “I knew that you have to roast a lot of the spices, plus gain an understanding of the flavors.”
That level of authenticity mattered to the AVAS group.
“A lot of them are from India, and they said at the time we weren't meeting their needs for a flavor profile that they liked,” he says. “We asked them, ‘What does authenticity mean to you?’ It varies wildly by the region, of course, but we were hearing that they didn't want Americanized versions of Indian dishes, like a beef vindaloo, which simply doesn't exist in India.”
At a crossroads, and making the determination that without a lot of additional training for staff, “we couldn't truly do it authentically ourselves,” Monticello decided to partner with a local Indian restaurant called Flavours.
The restaurant chefs prepared most of the food at the restaurant and brought it over, adding finishing touches in the servery. “I would definitely recommend partnering with a restaurant,” Monticello says, “however, anytime you work with an outside vendor, you have to pay extra attention to food safety and liability concerns.”
The Indian food has been so popular that it served as a pathway for the BlueCross staff to begin doing it themselves.
“We are now making the transition to preparing authentic Indian food (and many other global cuisines) in-house,” he says. “We're learning the spices and regions and it's going to be an action station where we can really show off.”
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