Family-style dining at Taj Mahal Cuisine of India in Albuquerque.
Like so many dishes around the world, curry is more than a food—it is a story. Digging into this famous Indian sauce can mean digging into history, place, the diaspora of people and their cultures, and the elusiveness of language, all in one bite.
When I accepted the assignment to explore Indian sauces, this is where my mind went: curry. My mind said, Curry is a spice from a leaf that is mixed into a sauce and poured over rice.
Boom. Easy. It took one trip to Taj Mahal Cuisine of India in Albuquerque to realize I knew nothing, and everything I thought I knew was a lie. How could I write about food if I didn’t know what I was eating, or worse, didn’t know what questions to ask to find out what was in my mouth? I felt like Carrie Bradshaw, sitting at her desk, staring out the window, asking herself a series of questions that ultimately go nowhere. And Google only led me further down a rabbit hole of confusion. I needed ground-level help.
Thankfully, my friend Kristina Haider, a first-generation American, agreed to navigate me through the basics, and what I learned opened a window into a world far beyond ingredients. Haider’s father was born in Pakistan six years after the division of British India in 1947, when, upon achieving independence, the country was partitioned into the Republic of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. Indian cuisine, she said, has been a way for her to connect to her father and his heritage.
She explained that in India, “curry” simply means “sauce,” and there are hundreds of sauces, including korma, masala, saag, and vindaloo—most of which, in India, are referred to by their specific names. The seasoning we know as curry isn’t made from the curry leaf but from a combination of spices. “So, what is the difference between a curry, a korma, a vindaloo, and a masala?” I asked her.
“Technically, they’re all curries. But technically, they’re also not curries at all,” she told me. “If you go back far enough, ‘curry’ isn’t Indian, it’s English.” As she explained it, the English didn’t know how to describe Indian food when they first encountered it, so it became “curry” to everyone. Over time, all these sauces became known as curries because that’s the word the English used for the cuisine in general.
The combination of spices, which is often also labeled “curry,” changes depending on the dish, but typically includes things like tamarind, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, ginger, cardamom, and turmeric. “You know, all the good stuff,” joked Shamez Amershi, owner of Taj Mahal, where they create their own in-house spice blends. “Curry is what makes the mixture of your spices.”
The yellow-orange curry powder we find on supermarket shelves is a blend that was concocted and brought to Britain from India by British soldiers. The traditional method of using spices in curries is to fry them in oil so the heat can release the flavors and infuse the oil.
With hundreds of different Indian sauces out there, Amershi’s advice for a beginner is that a creamier sauce, such as a korma or saag, is more mild, and a tomato-based sauce, like a vindaloo or masala, is hotter.
“The creamier, the better it tastes because it is more flavorful,” he said. “But a lot of people like it more spicy. Those spices taste better in a tomato base.”
And the curry leaf? It has a complex citrus flavor and nothing whatsoever to do with the aforementioned curries (although it does occasionally make its way into sauces). It is used whole to, on occasion, flavor rice, dal and other stews, and table condiments like chutneys and pickles. And speaking of condiments, it’s worth mentioning that the panchranga achaar at Taj Mahal is a crave-worthy creation. The combination of mango, lime, and chile pickled with herbs and hot spices had me scraping the ramekin with a spoon to get the last bit of flavor. Chutneys, spelled “chatni” in Hindi, are another family of sauces that were adopted by the British during their colonial era, but that story is for another day.
“It’s really to the point that a lot of Indian food outside of India has more English influence than most people realize,” said Haider.
Back at Taj Mahal, which has been serving Punjab-style food for over twenty years, I followed Amershi’s advice and eased myself back into the sauce game with an order of saag paneer, lamb shahi korma, and jehangiri kofta to share with my husband and toddler. His dishes tend toward the creamier side, due in part to the fact that Punjab is a northern region of India, and, he said, the sauces get hotter the farther south you go. The family style of dining at Taj Mahal is meant for sharing, and the sauces arrive in dishes alongside a healthy serving of rice to be passed around the table. You will not leave hungry.
The saag paneer is a popular vegetarian option featuring soft paneer cheese in place of meat, and it is one of my favorite foods on earth. The mild acidity and slight bitterness of spinach balances perfectly with the cream base and cheese. The lamb in the shahi korma gave a gaminess to the sauce that I thought enhanced the turmeric and tamarind notes in the curry, which begins the preparation of the dish before the cream is introduced. As a meatball enthusiast, the jehangiri kofta knocked my socks off with a killer combo of a creamy sauce, similar to the korma, and minced-lamb meatballs stuffed with almonds or cashews and raisins.
Lunch buffet spread at Taaj Palace in Albuquerque.
“Masala and korma have ingredients that set them apart from what most people think of when they hear the word ‘curry,’ ” Haider told me. “Vindaloo tends to have . . . a lot more spices than your average curry, where korma almost always has a yogurt or milk base and is much milder.” She suggested pairing a korma with a vindaloo to cut through and balance some of the latter’s heat, which I got a chance to do with the spread Taaj Palace in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights lays out for their lunch buffet.
Filling my plate with a sample of mint chutney, saag paneer, vegetarian navrattan korma, chicken vindaloo, butter chicken, and kofta meatballs made of chicken and beef with ginger, garlic, and other spices, I ate my way into a two-hour nap. As the sauces, meats, vegetables, and cheese blended on my plate, I found that a bite full of this and that made the experience all the better, just as my friend had suggested.
I still feel there is a veil of mystery behind the magical combination of spices and ingredients that form each individual curry. Lucky for us all, the spices in a curry are said to lead to a long life, full, I hope, of more and more plates of the many varieties of this elusive sauce.
Ungelbah Dávila lives in Valencia County with her daughter, animals, and flowers. She is a writer, photographer, and digital Indigenous storyteller.