It boils down to the sauce.
For years, I thought a curry was any warm concoction seasoned with curry powder. But Raghavan Iyer lovingly straightened me out.
Iyer is an award-winning, Minneapolis-based cooking teacher and the author of “660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking” (Workman, $22.95), a comprehensive 807-page tome that demystifies one of the world's great cuisines.
“The word ‘curry' is nonexistent in Indian kitchens, so don't think of it from the powder standpoint. Instead, think of it as a dish with sauce or gravy,” he said at a recent cooking session in my kitchen in Santa Ana, Calif. The sauce, he explained, is redolent with any number of freshly ground and very fragrant spices and/or herbs.
So curry isn't something that is added, it just IS.
“I use the four S's to define it: saucy, spicy – meaning well-seasoned – simple and sensational,” he said, his voice lilting in alluring songlike pitches.
Indeed, his curries exemplify the irresistible flavor profiles that are the building blocks of Indian cuisine: the interplay of sour, sweet, spicy heat, salty and bitter, along with umami (the taste found in meat, broth and mushrooms).
“I am a perfect hybrid, living the first 21 years in India and the last 26 years in the U.S.,” he said. “Having lived in two cultures, I have two styles of cooking.”
So although the book is primarily focused on classic curries, he also includes “contemporary curries,” dishes that showcase the flavors and spices of his native country with ingredients and techniques of his adopted homeland.
After many years of teaching cooking, Iyer's teacher voice shines through in every word, making his recipes easy to understand.
At the stove, we focused on a contemporary dish, wild salmon fillets poached with chiles, green onions and fresh tomatoes. Balchao masala, a red chile and vinegar paste, is the backbone of the sauce. I was amazed that my flimsy blender turned the assortment of soft and hard ingredients into an almost-smooth paste.
We sprinkled the salmon fillet with ground turmeric, the bright mustard-yellow dots of powder melting into the deep red-orange of the wild fish.
In a separate bowl, Iyer combined coconut milk, a little of the paste, and fresh curry leaves. The leaves were bright green and citrusy. They are used like bay leaves in Western cuisines, simmering in sauces to add delicate perfume.
“Curry leaves are sold in Indian markets, but of late they have been harder and harder to come by,” he said. “If you can't find them, simply leave them out. Don't substitute dried curry leaves.”
After searing both sides of the salmon fillet in a deep, large skillet, he added the coconut milk mixture, then brought the mixture to a simmer and added halved grape tomatoes and sliced green onion.
The kitchen filled with tempting scents, each offering distinct and separate subtleties. Sweet? Yes, cinnamon, cloves, coconut and ginger. Sour? Yes, vinegar and tamarind. Spicy? Yes, a just-right amount of dried red chiles.
We served the heavenly salmon surrounded with cooked Trader Joe's Harvest Grains Blend, a packaged mix of dried Israeli couscous, orzo, baby garbanzo beans and red quinoa. Not a traditional choice, but colorful and tasty.
The salmon was perfection and after we polished it off, I hated to see Iyer leave. We had 659 curries left to try.