Finding the ideal spice-mix for curry is not easy outside India.
Curry for the curious
What is in an ideal spice mix? If you are south Asian, like cooking, and live abroad, chances are you are asked that question a fair bit by curious foodies who love a curry but can't get their heads around the complex aromas. After all, no cookbook teaches you what you really need to know. Because the way your aunt instructed you to make the perfect tandoori chicken with the limited supplies available abroad is not found in any published piece other than bits of paper you wrote it on or, more recently, a really, really long email.
The intricacies are obvious in such dishes but, as I tell friends, the cheat sheet is even better. There are a few ways to master the curry. If you lack filial contacts, then start with classes. Ask a friend who can take you through the steps. For example, in Toronto, we used to gather at my friend's flat; the others would divide the grocery list among themselves (no more than four people fitted in her tiny kitchen) and I would bring the spices and extra bits in labelled, resealable plastic bags so they could carry some back.
With that, we would begin with the simplest of recipes. How to add some chutzpah to your hara dhaniya (fresh coriander) or how to make a simple pilaf without a rice cooker and a handful of frozen vegetables? If you want rice with less starch, rinse it in cold water at least three times before you fry it with some coriander seeds and then boil. Add the vegetables just in time to make sure they don't turn too soggy with all that boiling.
Or, as my father says, either fry and then boil or boil and then fry. Not that he is a masterchef in the kitchen, but he has a point. While the right mixture of spices is all-important in the base of any curry or dry rub, the rest of it is simple culinary skills. But if you don't care for classes and don't have a nose for differentiating between the overwhelming variety of spices on offer, here's the ultimate cheat sheet. Pick up a ready-made box of spices. While some are wet spice bases, I prefer the dry variety - not just for the taste but because I am able to control the amount I put in. With the ready-made wet bases, one usually has to empty the entire packet.
Feel like making a chicken curry? A mutton spice mix works just as well. Read the back of the package carefully because it comes with its own recipe. They may not be extensive or handed-down recipes, but they are basic and good enough to get you started on the kitchen battlefield littered with spices.