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Caribbean Curries Conundrum

Curry Spice, Colombo Seasoning, Garam Masala – What’s the Difference?

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Indian spices Photo © Synergee | Image from iStockphoto.com

Indian spices used in Caribbean cuisine.

Photo © Synergee | Image from iStockphoto.com
Updated January 21, 2013
In Caribbean cooking, curry blends, Colombo powder, and garam masala are similar but different. They each contain many of the same ingredients, but in a nutshell here’s the difference. Colombo powder contains ground-up toasted uncooked rice, while curry and garam masala do not. And unlike curry and Colombo powders, garam masala does not contain turmeric. As for curry seasoning – there are as many versions of that spice mix as there are cooks on the islands.

Believe it or not, Indians (from the Asian subcontinent) have considerably influenced Caribbean cuisine, particularly where large populations settled, such as Guadalupe, Martinique, Trinidad, and Jamaica. When they came to the Caribbean, they brought with them traditional curry spice blends from their homeland. Many of the spices were not readily available on the islands, so the recipes were eventually adapted using local accessible ingredients. To make the spice blends, whole spices are toasted and then ground into a powder.

Trinidadians enjoy a mild curry, sans chili peppers, that is prepared with ghee (clarified butter), turmeric, and mangrel (a.k.a. kalonji). Locals who desire heat in their curries use their favorite hot sauce. As well, many of the islands are known for their goat curries. Jamaica’s specialty is spicy hot curry goat that is prepared with peppercorns, Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice and sometimes annatto oil, cilantro, vinegar and hot mustard.

Curry Blends
Curries range from mild to hot, depending on the cook and the local people’s preferences. A basic Indian curry spice blend generally includes cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, celery seed, and fennel seed. Caribbean curries are based on this basic blend, but often contain spices familiar to the islands, such as allspice, anise, thyme, cloves, black pepper, ginger, chili peppers, and mustard seeds. Fresh whole spices are ground to make the powders.

Colombo Powder
The French West Indies has its own adaptation of curry powder and it’s locally known as poudre de Colombo or Colombo powder. Again, the specific ingredients vary by island and individual cook. Generally speaking, Colombo seasoning has many of the same spices as curry and can be used in place of curry powder in recipes. The main difference here is that Colombo includes a thickening agent, which is usually toasted, uncooked rice. Sometimes plantain flour or cassava flour is used in its place. Colombo is sold in powder or paste form.

Garam Masala
There’s no exact garam masala recipe because, like curry and Colombo powders, the ingredients differ by region and cook. Caribbean garam masalas typically do not include turmeric or chilies. Plus, the spice is added to the curry dishes near the end of cooking, or is served as a condiment. But it can be used in place of curry or Colombo seasonings if the cook so chooses.

When preparing a dish that uses curry or Colombo the protein (meat, poultry, fish, game, etc.) is first seasoned with the spice mix and then browned in a pan. A cooking liquid (water, wine, or stock) is then added along with any preferred vegetables and the dish is left to simmer until all ingredients are tender and cooked through. Garam masala can be added in the last few minutes of cooking or used in place of curry and Colombo powders. The finished curry recipe is usually served with white rice or used as a filling in flat breads (roti) accompanied by chutneys, salads, and fried plantains. These seasonings can also be added to barbecue sauces, soups, and stews.

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