Do you love entering a home rich with the aroma of herbs and spices? I do. Somehow, it gives me a distinct feeling of both excitement and peace at once. A dinner of seafood curry, especially if you use the Indian staple ghee, a clarified butter, offers rich nutrition along with a touch of the unexpected for many Americans. And it’s delicious.

What Exactly Is Curry?

The term refers to two quite distinct plant-based preparations. Both Europeans and Asians cook with the curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), with green teardrop-shaped leaves. Frozen leaves are available at specialty grocery stores. One can purchase dried leaves online. To make a traditional aromatic base for Indian cuisine, called tadka, saute curry leaves, mustard seed, cumin and your personal favorite Indian spices, in ghee.

Typically, when culinary pros are discussing curry or curry powder, they are referencing a mix of spices, which vary dramatically. Curry powder is a British invention. The mix tends to include coriander, cumin, turmeric and ginger, but seldom actual curry leaves.

But Aren’t There Lots of Curries?

A photo of sockeye salmon coconut curry.
Featuring ingredients that span the globe from Alaska to Great Britain to India, our sockeye salmon coconut curry offers a delightful combination of textures and spicy notes.

The answer is a lesson in etymology, the history of words. “Kari” in the language of the Tamil people who live in the areas native to what we now call the curry tree, may have originally meant black pepper, or a sauce with black pepper.

In the 1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the British began calling any spicy Indian dish a curry. So by that definition, there are indeed many curries, with a great variety of constituent spices. Meanwhile, in India, a broad range of spice preparations is called masala, which tend to be spicier than curries. In short, “curry” as the term is used worldwide is a rather fluid concept. It encompasses two general traits: traditional Indian spices and some degree of spicy heat.

Cooking With Ghee

You can buy ghee at Indian grocery stores, health food stores, some supermarkets and online. Or make it yourself by melting butter and straining out the milk solids when it separates. I use it in my cooking whether or not I’m using Indian spices.

You’ll Never Get Bored

A photo of Cosy Seafood Curry.
Our Cosy Seafood Curry features mixed seafoods (the recipe doesn’t specify which types – so choose what you like, nearly anything works!) in a rich broth of pungent spices and coconut milk.

Seafood and curry powder are a natural pair because fish – which is relatively mild in both flavor and texture – gains an entirely new dimension when the complementary tart/earthy/savory notes of curry come along for the ride.

As I’ve indicated, it’s a mistake to think of curry as one set of flavors. There are many ways to cook with seafood and Indian spices. The results are so splendidly varied you could enjoy them virtually every night. Try broiled salmon with curry spices or green curry salmon.

If You’re Worried About The Spice Level

Some people adore spicy heat, while others either dislike the taste or suffer digestive distress when strong spice comes along. This does not mean you must abandon curry, or Indian spices, generally. Here’s a rough guide to what you’ll see in Indian restaurants and cookbooks. Korma dishes contain butter and cream and are not spicy. Tikka masalas contain a protein cooked in a tandoor on a skewer, with a creamy sauce that will not have much burn. Saag, which contains spinach, is usually a bit tangier. One step up is a Jalfrezi dish. Vindaloos are the hottest.
As with most culinary experiences, the only way to know what you like is to dive in. If you are nervous, begin with a smaller portion of curry than the recipe dictates, and add more as you become more comfortable.

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Temma Ehrenfeld has been a writer for more than 30 years. Her novel "Morgan" is available at bookstores.

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