Before any other curry touched my lips, there was Vietnamese curry. It was, and still is, a staple at my mom’s house.
Coconut- and tomato-based, thickened by starchy potatoes, I prefer my Viet curry not too soupy-thin yet not too stewy-thick. Like all curries and stews, it’s better the next day. I promise to provide a recipe soon. Today, I’d like to focus on the curry powder.
Lately, as I’ve been experimenting more with Indian cuisine and making my own Indian spice mixes from whole spices, it suddenly dawned on me. Why not make my own Vietnamese curry powder as well?
Yes, why not? Especially since my own precious stash from the U.S. was dwindling down to just one little sachet that would barely eek out two servings.
I used to be unfamiliar and confused at all the different kinds of spices. Words like cardamon, fennel, and turmeric were all Greek to me. Especially fenugreek (hah!).
The ones I thought I knew, I hated: Cinnamon, I only knew to be the stuff that’s sprinkled on sweets and didn’t like; Paprika, I disliked because it was severely overused in a once-tried Hungarian octopus dish; Nutmeg, used in eggnog which always made me sick just smelling it; Cloves, I thought were thin cigarettes that smelled nice (and which I did not smoke in college in case my parents are reading this); and Star Anise, the eight-pointed spice that made my mom’s spice drawer smell funny-musty and omnipresent in Pho soup.
As you can see, I had some terrible first experiences with, and misconceptions of, many spices.
But living in Dubai for the last four years and frequenting the spice counters weekly have helped me learn the different spices and their smells and tastes. I’ve learned that I may not like a single spice (like cinnamon) but combining that spice with others yields a completely different flavor! I’ve learned that a spice can take on a whole different profile once it’s been cooked or heated up in oil (like paprika). A whole new world of cooking has truly opened up for me.
I still have a long, long, way to go to really understand and appreciate all the different combinations that are possible (too man curries, not enough time in the world) but I’m happy to be progressing along, though slowly.
So to start devising my own Viet spice mix, I first used Google to translate the Vietnamese ingredients in the back of my final curry packet. I don’t know why I didn’t go straight to Vianco, the manufacturer’s website, because I later discovered that all the ingredients were listed there in English.
I happened to have every ingredient on the list except for annatto so off I went in search of that in Dubai. I did not find annatto seeds but was able to find annatto powder (I have seen it in Geant, Carrefour, and WestZone under the brand Mama Sita).
Sniffing, mixing, grinding, and more sniffing along the way, I experimented with 10 different spice combinations before arriving at the current recipe. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not aiming for a 100% match, just something I can be happy with.
With my second to last batch, I made three pots of curries – each identical in ingredients except for the spice powder used.
For pot 1, I used the final packet of Vianco’s Indian Chef curry powder, for pot 2, I used my own spice blend, and for pot 3, I used a Madras curry because most Vietnamese curries suggest substituting Madras curry powder if Vietnamese is not available.
All three pots of curries tasted very good but it was quite obvious from a side-by-side comparison that the Madras curry was very different. Not bad, just different due to different spice combinations.
Scotch, as chief taste-tester in our household, and having tried both my mom’s and my version of Vietnamese curry, had to sample all three pots of curry in a blind taste-test. He actually picked my own spice blend to be his favorite of the three :).
Personally, I like my own blend the best because with each batch, I think my nose may have led me to create a spice mix tailored to my own taste. I hope you get a chance to try this and let me know what you think.
And all the experiments that didn’t quite measure up?
I combined them all into a container to be used for future curry-surprise dishes :).
I am excited to be hosting this month’s Delicious Vietnam (#19).
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- 4 large bay leaves
- 8 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds (or ½ teaspoon ground)
- 2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds (or 1 teaspoon ground)
- 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
- 4 star anise
- 1 teaspoon annatto powder
- ½ teaspoon chili powder (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons turmeric
- Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat.
- Toast whole spices for 30-45 seconds by placing them in the hot pan and occasionally shake the pan or stir the spices with a wooden spoon or chopsticks to prevent them from burning.
- Place whole spices in an electric spice/coffee grinder and grind to a fine powder.
- Add the powdered spices to the grinder and pulse for a few seconds to mix well.
- Store in airtight container away from direct sunlight.