How to Make Curry Powder

Curry powder is a blend of spices with origins in the Indian subcontinent although it is most often associated with British Indian cuisine. It is an all purpose “masala” that can be used to flavor curries and dals. You can buy curry powder off the shelf but nothing beats the flavor of a homemade blend, and all you need is 15 minutes.

Photo of bright yellow curry powder in a glass jar with a spoon next to it.

Sharing with you a homemade curry powder that’s full of flavor and as authentic as possible has been on my to-do list for a while now. A big reason for this is I’m tired of seeing recipes for curry powder blends that look just like garam masala. Apparently, in the confusing discussion over where curry powder comes from and what it should be used for, this spice blend, with foggy origins but a bold flavor profile, has lost its way.

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What is curry?

Photo of a curry made with curry powder and coconut milk in a white bowl with soup spoons and curry leaves.

“Curry” is a suffix added to a number of spicy Indian dishes that can be either dry or saucy.

The word can be loaded: it has been used in racial slurs against Indians abroad and it also tends to offend some Indian cooks who claim it is a colonial invention: a catchall used by the Portuguese and the British to describe any spicy, gravied Indian dish, and one that fails to capture the complexity of Indian cuisine.

While there is some truth in that, for better or for worse the word has become firmly embedded in the culinary lexicon and is commonly used within and outside India to describe saucy, spicy dishes.

It might also not be fair to blame the generalization entirely on the colonizers. In Tamil Nadu, in south India, the word “kari” has long been used as a suffix for savory meat and vegetable side dishes, both gravied and dry, from a saucy kozhi kari or chicken curry to a stir-fried vendakka kari or okra curry.

The Portuguese and the British, likely relieved by the simplicity of the word “kari” in a land where words like “kuzhambu” and “kathirikkai” roll off local tongues with ease, readily adopted it, anglicized the spelling to “curry,” and — with an arrogance typical to colonizers — used it to describe any spicy dish from anywhere in India.

Curry became a global food when Indian laborors, ferried by the British to other colonies, went on to create versions of it in foreign lands like Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius, Jamaica and Trinidad, among many others.

Whatever the origins of a curry, or the word, what really matters today when it comes to eating it is that it is usually delicious and especially good with rice or an Indian flatbread.

Overhead photo of a jar of yellow curry powder with a spoon.

What is curry powder?

Curry powder is a strikingly yellow, all-purpose blend of spices that can be used to flavor Indian-style stews (called curries) and vegetable stir-fries. It has a very distinct flavor profile, quite unlike that of garam masala, the other popular spice blend, which is made with warming spices like peppercorns, cinnamon and mace. Curry powder has a mix of some warming ingredients (like black peppercorns and red chili peppers) and some cooling ingredients (like fenugreek and turmeric), but it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have other spices you’d typically find in garam masala like cardamom, cloves and mace.

Like curry, curry powder has its beginnings in colonial India. At the time, cooks in India blended up their own unique spice mixes and no one cooked with premade spice powders. Curry powder, some stories go, was an all-purpose spice blend savvy Indian traders created just for Britons returning home and looking to bring with them a taste of Indian food, which they had fallen in love with. Others claim it was created by Indian cooks in Britain looking to recreate the flavors of India in their restaurants.

Because the British had tamer tastebuds than Indians did, curry powder was milder and less spicy than garam masala. Curry powder was also likely inspired — or created — by south Indian cooks, because its ingredients very closely resemble those in south Indian spice blends like sambar powder and rasam powder. Indeed, its flavor profile is best suited to foods that have a south Indian flair.

There is a spicier version of curry powder, called “Madras curry powder,” (Madras being the old name of Chennai, the largest city in and capital of Tamil Nadu), which has more red chili pepper added to it.

Just as they do with using the word “curry,” some Indian cooks turn their noses up at curry powder because it lacks a clear Indian pedigree. But I have never been dogmatic when it comes to good food and curry powder is not only a spice blend I always have in my kitchen, it is one of my go-tos when I want a hearty and tasty Indian curry in a rush.

Mix it up and keep it in your pantry alongside a jar of garam masala and you’ll always have two great reasons to cook Indian food.

Cooking with curry powder

Curry powder is not a substitute for garam masala. Here’s a simple guide: if a curry you are making has a north Indian flavor profile (foods like chana masala, paneer butter masala or palak paneer) go with garam masala. If it has a south Indian flavor profile like this chickpea curry or this vegetable curry, or uses ingredients like coconut, curry leaves and tamarind, use curry powder.

You can add curry powder to stir-fried potatoes or eggplant and dals as well, and it will be wonderful in all of these.

Both curry powder and garam masala are already cooked because you roast the spices beforehand. This means you can add them to the dish toward the end, which is great as you can tweak the quantity to your taste.

As to how much curry powder (or garam masala or any spice blend) you should use in a recipe, a tablespoon or two is a good rule of thumb to follow. While I always specify how much of a spice blend to use in any recipe, don’t be afraid to add more — or less, after tasting the dish.

Spice blends like curry powder don’t just add flavor, though. They pack within them immense health benefits that can aid you in a journey toward better health. For that reason, in addition to the deliciousness they bring to food, it’s a good idea to include them in your diet.

Photo of the ingredients in curry powder in small pinch bowls, including coriander seeds, curry leaves, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, dry red chili peppers, black peppercorns, turmeric, mustard seeds, asafetida and chana dal.

Ingredients for curry powder

  • Coriander seeds: Coriander seeds, the seeds of the herb we call cilantro, add a fresh, lemony flavor to spice mixes. They have digestive benefits and are known to be antidiabetic and antioxidant.
  • Fenugreek seeds (methi): Fenugreek seeds add a pleasant undertone of sweetness and bitterness to curry powder. These are health stars: they cool the body and are immensely beneficial for digestion as well. A simple home remedy in south India to treat the runs is to swallow a few fenugreek seeds with buttermilk. It always works. Fenugreek has many more health benefits, including lowering blood sugar.
  • Cumin seeds: Cumin seeds add earthy, deep flavor to curry powder. They also help reduce cholesterol and aid in weight loss.
  • Black mustard seeds: Mustard seeds add color and pungent and bitter notes that strengthen the flavor base in curry powder. They also have many health benefits, from fighting headaches to heart disease.
  • Curry leaves: Called “sweet neem” in south India, where they are predominantly used, curry leaves are usually added to recipes whole because of their overpowering fragrance and pungent flavor with a hint of citrus. The flavor profile of plain curry leaves is very different from that of curry powder, which has many additional ingredients, so despite the similar sounding names you can’t simply replace one with the other when you cook. Curry leaves are great antioxidants and they help with weight loss. They are the only “wet” ingredient in this blend (unless you use dry curry leaves, which is fine here) and you will need to roast them dry with the other ingredients.
  • Chana dal (Bengal gram lentils): Lentils act as a thickener is curries, and they also impart nutty flavor to balance out the strong spices. Everyone knows the health benefits of lentils, which are rich in fiber and protein and packed with good-for-you nutrients.
  • Black peppercorns: Black peppercorns add wonderful, flavorful heat to spicy Indian dishes. They are great anti-inflammatories and might help fight high cholesterol and blood sugar.
  • Dry red chili peppers: I use Kashmiri dry red chili peppers for this spice blend because they add lovely color. Any small dry red pepper you can find at an Indian supermarket would work, as would the Mexican arbol pepper. If using arbol, you might want to use less and it is spicier. Chili peppers are known for reducing gut inflammation, speeding up the metabolism and promoting a stronger immune system, among many benefits.
  • Turmeric: Turmeric, which gives curry powder its characteristic yellow color, needs no introduction or explanation, because it’s an all-round star. I have a comprehensive post on cooking with turmeric, including its health benefits, which range from reducing inflammation and fighting viruses to fighting cancer and diabetes.
  • Asafetida (hing): Asafetida is a resin sold in powdered form and it is an ingredient that confounds non-Indian cooks because of its strong, sulfurous smell and odd flavor. But once it’s added to recipes, the smell dissipates and what is left behind is a wonderful umami. Adding asafetida to meatless versions of meat dishes is an easy trick many Indian cooks use to add meaty flavor to recipes, but it is overwhelmingly used in Indian vegetarian cooking as well. Asafetida has been shown in studies to have many positive effects on health, from improving digestive health to fighting cancer.
  • Ginger powder (optional): I find most commercial blends add ginger powder, but I am not a fan. Ginger has a powerful, almost overwhelming warmth, and as many Indian dishes call for adding ginger garlic paste, I find that having it in the curry powder as well can be problematic. If you absolutely want to, add two teaspoons of dry ginger powder to the skillet at the same time as the turmeric and the asafetida.

Tips and FAQs

How much curry powder does this recipe make?

Just under two cups, which should give you rougly 10-12 uses.

Can I use powdered spices to make the blend?

There are two powdered spices in this recipe, the turmeric and asafetida (and ginger if you use it), and it’s okay to use those as they are. Some of the other spices in this blend are also likely already in your kitchen in powder form, like pepper, cumin, coriander and cayenne and if you’re wondering if you can substitute those for the whole spices, I’d advise against it. That’s because powdered spices have usually lost a good part of their flavor and fragrance, especially cumin and coriander. The spices in this blend also need to be roasted beforehand, so you’d be much better off using whole spices.

Where can I buy the ingredients?

You can find all of the ingredients needed in this curry powder at any Indian store. If you don’t have an Indian store nearby, you can get them online–Amazon is a good source for organic (and non-organic) versions of all Indian spices.

I don’t have fresh curry leaves

Fresh curry leaves can be a bit hard to source, especially if you don’t have access to an Indian store. But you can find dry curry leaves online, and although this is an herb best used fresh in most dishes, the dry version is perfect for curry powder because you’d be drying the leaves in the pan when you roast the spices anyway.
At a pinch, leave them out and proceed with the other ingredients.

How to store curry powder

Like all spice blends, curry powder should be stored in an airtight jar, in a cool, dark place. You can also just put it in the refrigerator or the freezer. Stored correctly, a diy curry powder blended from whole spices at home should remain fresh and flavorful for at least a year and, if frozen, much longer.

How to make curry powder

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