Currying Flavor

24 May 2006
Currying Flavor

In measured doses, the Asian spice blend adds intrigue, piquancy and a contemporary spin to dishes from many cuisines.

This article first appeared in the 1 April 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Lisa Bertagnoli, Special to R&I

Butterscotch panna cotta sounds like a safe bet that harbors no big surprises, just a creamy, rich bliss of caramel-flavored indulgence. At davidburke & donatella in New York City, the dessert is served with curried cocoa gelée, a novel twist that has turned the $10 item into a best seller.

"According to New York magazine, it's the best panna cotta in town," boasts David Burke, chef-owner of the upscale, 110-seat restaurant. Burke, who describes his restaurant as "modern American," also keeps a fryer filled with curry oil, in which he prepares tempura, shoestring fries, pretzel-crusted crab cakes and zucchini chips.

"It's got a great nose and great flavor, and it's exotic," Burke says of curry. "It keeps guests coming back for more."

Curry-embellished panna cotta shows how far the spice blend has traveled from its roots in Indian and Asian cuisines. In Thai cuisine, curry describes a group of pastes made from as many as 20 different spices, including coriander, caraway, turmeric, lemongrass and garlic. Indian curry, often gold in color, refers to the complex blending of dry spices that is so prevalent in the cuisine. Curry pastes range in spiciness, with yellow on the milder end to red and then green on the hot end of the spectrum. Indian formulas can include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, asafetida, turmeric, ginger and cumin. (Crushed and dried, curry leaves can be added to curry pastes and powders, but they alone do not constitute curry.)

Beat the Heat

The key to curry is keeping it mild, says Mitchell Maxwell, chef and co-owner of Maxwell's 148, a 100-seat, fine-dining restaurant in Natick, Mass. "It's more subtle," Maxwell says of the red curry paste he buys at a local Asian market.

The paste, made with lemongrass, ginger, garlic and palm sugar, appears in an appetizer of Thai eggplant with coconut curry and basil ($6) and Vegetable Curry Clay Pot ($23, $28 with shrimp), a dish of eggplant, potatoes, long beans and carrots in coconut curry sauce. In both dishes, coconut milk calms the heat of the curry, Maxwell says.

Although his menu is largely from scratch, the chef says curry paste is an ingredient better purchased than made in house. "It can only be duplicated in Southeast Asia," he maintains.

At Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., curry is one of Chef Bradley Labarre's favorite ingredients. "It's a nice alternative spice," says Labarre, who flavors navy beans and a barley pilaf with curry. Labarre says the private school's 1,493 students, from kindergarten through high school, sport a collectively sophisticated palate. Still, Labarre was surprised when the curry dishes proved so popular. "I get a lot of compliments," he says.

Labarre adds that he tries to menu curry dishes during the warmer months. "It reminds me of hot places," he says. "I try to be seasonal with it."

Blending In

That's not the case with Sean McDonald, executive chef at Suite One Sixty, an upscale, 200-seat steakhouse in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. For McDonald, curry is "about fond memories of home. It's something I miss from living in England." Curry-inspired dishes include chicken curry with almonds, sautéed cauliflower and jasmine rice ($22) and, as the season permits, curried pastas and soups. The chicken dish in particular is a good seller, McDonald says.

McDonald prepares his own curry blend, a mix of coriander, cardamom, cumin, mustard seed, cayenne and black peppers, and turmeric, and uses the resulting powder in curry sauces as well as in curry oils served with roasted fish and grilled vegetables.

The blend is on the mild side to allay patrons' fears that curry means lots of sweating and lots of water. "They're not used to something that's very spicy," says McDonald of his clientele. And for the diners who request extra spicy, "We have a special mix made up," he adds.

A Touch of Curry

If Indian or Asian curry dishes are too bold, consider using prepared curry blends or curry-infused oil to give new flavor to familiar foods.

  • Rocky Mountain lamb chops with cilantro pesto and raspberry-chipotle sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and curried-banana chutney. Cottonwood Restaurant & Cafe, Boston

  • Moules à la Coriandre: mussels steamed with cilantro and curry and finished with a dash of cream. Markt, New York City

  • Marinated ribbons of yellowfin tuna with hearts of Hawaiian palm, charred pineapple, pickled shallots, mustard and curry oil. Rubicon, San Francisco

  • Oven-roasted curried cashews: whole cashews roasted in curry spices and butter. 74th Street Ale House, Seattle

  • Curried Kula Corn Soup with blue crab and house-made curry oil. Spago, Maui, Hawaii

  • Curried cod with salad bar and soup. Western Washington University, Bellingham

Lisa Bertagnoli is a Chicago-based freelance writer

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