Review: CP44 – The World’s Best Curry Powder?
It’s no secret by now that I dig small-scale producers of quality foodstuffs. Producers whose efforts tell a story and who are devoted, passionate and geeky in what they do. Passionate and geeky, that is, on the brink of obsession. This is the story about one such person:
More specifically, this is the story about Alex, a geek with a dream. In 2011, under the codename CP44, Alex set out on a quest to create the world’s best curry powder – a quest which many may have attempted before – but also a quest that few, if any, have taken quite as serious as Alex.
The dream: A universal curry powder!
How does one get the idea to create the world’s premiere curry powder? Well, if you’re to believe young master Alex himself, his project started with a bottle of Tabasco. The iconic Louisiana hot sauce that has made its way out of the Avery Island swamp and into nearly every single kitchen on the face of the earth. Alex was fascinated with the global appeal of the Tabasco sauce and wanted to create a curry powder with much of the same universal appeal as the now (in)famous Louisiana staple. This seemingly simple idea eventually led him on a three-year journey involving research, spice sampling, test blending, experimentation, documentation, feedback sessions and what have you.
You may think that a terribly complicated ordeal for something as seemingly common and uninspiring as curry powder, but there’s no stopping some geeks – I should know, I’m one such unstoppable geek myself. But before we get to the answer to the pressing question: “was it worth it?” – let’s start with a couple of slightly less complicated questions: What the hell is curry powder anyway? and why does this quest even matter?
What is curry powder anyway?
If you’re like most people in the world, you may think curry powder is an Indian invention. It’s not. Like everyone’s other favorite non-Indian culinary thing, Chicken Tikka Masala, curry powder is entirely British in origin. Much like the word curry itself, by the way.
See, the Brits, being the great colonial power that they were some hundred years ago, were running all over South Asia, picking up on the new tastes and smells, possibly oppressing a few million people in the process. When they as part of their conquest discovered the wonderful and heavily sauced Indian dishes, they somehow got around to naming them after the Tamil word “kari”, meaning “sauce, relish for rice” (I wonder if my friend Kari will be pissed if I tell her she’s sauce, relish for rice?). The word kari eventually warped into curry thus creating a new classification for dishes, leaving a lot of Indians thoroughly confused in the process. But probably not as confused as when the British then went on to take a plethora of traditional South Asian spice blends known as masalas which form the base for many “curry” dishes, mixed them up in entirely new ways, put their own little spin on them, and then brought them home to the Isles as “Curry Powder” – the smell and taste of the far away colonies.
Long story short, the only thing really Indian about the term curry (powder) is its origins and inspiration. The spices used therein and various blends thereof predate European arrival in India by millennia, but the name and the current base blend of ingredients now known as curry powder? It is, rather anticlimactically, entirely a British thing!
So, if curry powder isn’t authentic, why does quality and attention to detail matter? And why would someone spend years pursuing the goal of creating the ultimate curry powder blend? Elementary, my dear Watson: while curry powder may be as Indian as Chicken Tikka Masala, it is still a largely honest attempt of squeezing the impressions of an entire sub-continent – flavors, aromas, tradition, diversity and all – into a single spice blend recognizable and palatable not only to those who have been there, but also those who dream of going! And if that’s not worth putting a little time and effort into, if only to create a reasonable approximation of the predominant flavors in Indian (and South Asian) cuisine, I don’t know what is. Not caring to do so, to me would just be showing a lack of respect for centuries worth of incredibly diverse cuisine and culture that India brings to the table.
This, even if spending three years on the project may seem a bit much to some, is exactly why people like Alex matter and why his project, masochistic as it seems, makes a strange kind of sense! By pouring some effort and thought (and by some, I mean a lot) into the project, it lends credibility to curry powder and makes the spice blend seem more of a tribute to its origins rather than a bland, half-assed imitation/insult.
And with that, let’s have a look at Alex’s enfant terrible: CP44, aka The World’s Best Curry Powder Project!
CP44 – What’s in a name?
First things first, it’s probably safe to say that CP44 is a curry powder unlike any other. But what, then, does that mean? Since curry powder at its core is a bit of a bastard child and no official reference product or recipe exists, defining what curry powder is becomes a bit of a problem, but let’s try.
The Aroma Spice Lab in Denmark… I’ve got to get me one of those! Photo credit: aromaspices.com
Our friend Wikipedia tells us that common agreed upon ingredients for curry powder include coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and chili peppers. Other common ingredients include ginger, garlic, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, mustard seeds, nutmeg, long pepper, black pepper and others. Alex in his CP44 blend use pretty much all of them… And then some! Actually, the numerical part of the name, 44, refers to the exact number of plants, herbs and spices that made it into the final blend. 44. Hah, for once the answer is not 42! Ahem, anyway, a large portion of these are, for obvious reasons, kept secret but when pressed, Alex confirms most of the usual suspects above, hints to a blend of four different chili peppers used for heat and flavor, and very nonchalantly mumbles something about tamarind, fruits and what was it now, oh yeah, saffron threads!
I know, how could you even think about creating the worlds première curry powder blend without the world’s most exclusive and expensive spice? The mere thought is preposterous!
Now, given the not exactly uncomplicated nature of the blend, you may be wondering just how on earth Alex came up with his blend of 44 different fruits, herbs and spices. Well, simple, really, (no, not really!) he started out by tasting the competition, figuring out what was already out there, giving them a taste and coming to some sort of general consensus as to what curry powder was and what it should taste like. He then went off on a research mission, to India – as you do! Here he spent his time sourcing various spices and looking into techniques and blends. Upon successfully (one would assume) returning to Denmark, carrying his stash of flavors and experience, he set about mixing his perfect curry powder. His goal was simple: to create an innovative blend of flavors encompassing all five major tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – each of them played by one or more spices, herbs or fruits.
Some early samples of CP44. I don’t even want to think about how much work went into this, and I’m a geek! Photo credit: aromaspices.com
The process allegedly involved countless test batches, a slur of documentation and an international test tasting panel consisting of bloggers, foodies and like-minded geeks. The result? A seemingly complicated mesh of interwoven flavors and aromas, all tied up in an attractive little metal canister adorned with a black label, a fancy logo and a short writeup about the project.
And the result is really what we’re here to talk about, isn’t it? So with introductions out of the way, let’s have a look at the product:
CP44 – The Wold’s Best Curry Power, a review
More than anything, the packaging hints at this product being something a little out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t till this greedy little geek got the metal lid pried off the attractive canister that he was to realize just how special.
The curry powder itself takes the appearance of a fine grind powder with a lovely brownish-yellow color and just a hint of brick. The scent, when compared to other curry powders found in my pantry is, for lack of a better word, pretty much out of this world. It has the familiar earthy smell that is prominent in most Madras curry powders, but also complex floral notes, warming hints of exotic spices and a playful little tug at the nose from the chilies – all of which, by the way, are aspects you seldom find to a large extend in competing curry powders.
It’s… Beautiful! Photo credit: aromaspices.com
In other words, it’s everything a curry powder should be, and everything that most curry powders fail to be: A carefully engineered mash-up of complex and inviting aromas. Where most commercial curry powders stop right around the earthy smells mark aroma wise, CP44 actually displays numerous individual and identifiable aromas and succeeded quite well in stimulating my curiosity as well as my appetite.
In terms of taste testing, I was a little confused as to how best to go about conducting a test. If there are books on taste testing spices, I certainly haven’t read them so I went my own little ways. I tried carefully dipping a finger in the mix and giving it a taste. This produced a somewhat dusty and dry, slightly subdued, but not at all uncomfortable flavor explosion in my mouth. I knew instantly that there was something going on in the can but I knew I wasn’t getting the full flavor potential and that I had to come up with some way of extracting even more flavor.
In the end (as so many other times before) mayonnaise became the answer! We all know that flavor components in food are generally soluble in either water, oil or alcohol (Oh? Well, we all know now, then!), so my solution to my flavor extraction challenge became to make a very simple mayonnaise consisting of eggs, neutral-flavored oil, a splash of subtle rice wine vinegar and a teeny bit of tasteless vodka for optimum flavor extraction. Into the newly whipped mayo, I stirred a bit of CP44 and left the curried mayo in the fridge overnight to properly extract the multiple layers of flavor from the curry. I can do (food) science me!
When I eventually tasted the curry spiked mayo the next day, I was damn well nearly blown away. The leading flavor was that of high quality Madras curry powder with an unfamiliar bit of sweetness, followed by an earthy depth along with a warming tingle from the chilies which are more dominant than usual in this blend, yet perfectly integrated and in balance. There are fruity and floral notes as well, along with a lightly sour tamarind twang and a completely in your face yet absolutely incredible umami quality. A little confused as to what I had just experienced, I likened the experience in my tasting notes as “powdered Worcestershire sauce… In a good way!” as the experience reminded me so much of the umami richness you get from adding a proper shot of Worcestershire sauce to your cooking. Umami in powdered spice form is new to me, but dammit I like it. In other words, we’re dealing with more than just a curry powder here, we’re dealing with an exotic spice blend that doubles as a flavor enhancer and umami goodness. And that’s a pretty good thing.
In Conclusion: The World’s Best Curry Powder?
So? Is CP44 really the World’s Best Curry Powder? As you can read above, I was pretty blown back away by my initial taste test. But still, “World’s Best” is a pretty big claim. And from what I understand, Alex doesn’t claim it to be. He merely states that he put his very best effort into creating the best possible curry powder. And without aiming for the title as the World’s Best how can one really do his utmost?
Did he succeed? Well, for my money, I quite honestly haven’t tasted a curry powder that was better, yet alone the equivalent of, CP44. But then again, there are a lot of different curry powders out there and if any are better than this, I’d sure as hell love to try them! For now, let’s call it a very solid effort and a product worthy of its label. World’s best or not, Alex can certainly be proud of his three-year journey and the results it yielded!
Putting it to use: How to use curry powder?
Curry powder is quite possibly a bit of an overlooked culinary toy, so having read this tale and review, you may still be wondering just what to do with a premium curry powder like CP44? Luckily for you, the possibilities are nearly endless. From pork and chicken dishes over faux curries to chutneys and even desserts, curry powder can add a bit of a kick and an unusual exotic touch, and there’s plenty of inspiration to be found right here amongst other places.
If you’re looking for an easy introduction to the world of curry powder, I’d suggest doing pretty much exactly what I did in my review: mix it up with a bit of mayo, let it sit for at least a few hours and use the resulting spicy mayo in places where you’d normally use plain mayo. More specifically, CP44 or any other quality curry powder would add a nice exotic kick to many a chicken, egg or potato salad… Heck, just about any mayonnaise based salad, I reckon.
If mayonnaise-based salads are not really your thing, fear not, mayo and curry powder makes for a pretty awesome sandwich spread, too, a spread you might be able to use for something along the lines of what I ended up doing… Creating a new, exotic spin on an old, popular sandwich:
The World’s Best Club Sandwich Project
For his CP44 project, Alex wanted to create a spin on one of the world’s most popular spice blends and give it a unique universal appeal. What better way, then, to put CP44 to the test than by using it in a unique spin on the world’s arguably most popular sandwich: The Club Sandwich ?
A classic Club Sandwich is a simple work of art consisting of cooked chicken, mayo, bacon, lettuce and tomato packed amongst two slices of toasted white bread. It’s since been greatly bastardized, but that’s another story. For my unique spin on the club sandwich, I wanted something a little more, well, elaborate. So, I decided to make good use of Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe to produce some moist, flavorful chicken that I used to top some crispy brown butter-fried toast smeared with a home-made mayo liberally spiked with CP44 curry powder. The bacon component was played by a couple of rashers of lightly smoked, organic bacon, while our old friend Romaine played the part of the lettuce. Tomatoes not being in season, I decided to use a home-made spicy tomato and Tabasco jam (recipe follows) in place of watery import tomatoes. The Tabasco, of course, being a rather obvious tip of the hat to the inspiration for the CP44 project.
Now, this may not sound like your ordinary Club Sandwich, but then again, the word ordinary isn’t really in my vocabulary. And what better way to pay tribute to an over the top product than to use it in an over the top application? The obvious line of thought here was to create something a little special and geeky to honor and highlight the very special and very geeky product that is CP44. The reason for choosing the Club Sandwich, other than its popularity and large international appeal was that, while bursting with freshness and flavor, the individual components are subtle enough that they would, in theory, allow the curry powder to shine through and offer their own unique twist to the finished sandwich.
Should you feel inclined to follow along the steps of this madman, here’s the recipe for your reference. To keep it short, I’ve omitted the perfect roast chicken recipe and while I encourage you to try this version, you may of course roast your chicken any way you prefer – or even use a good supermarket rotisserie chicken. Anyway, here we go:
- Two tablespoons of mayo, preferably homemade
- One teaspoon of CP44 Curry Powder
- Two 300 gram cans of quality, chopped, organic tomatoes
- 2-4 tablespoons of light brown sugar
- One organic lemon
- Two cloves
- 1 teaspoons of cumin powder
- 1 teaspoons of ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon of Tabasco (or more to taste)
- 100 grams or so of cooked chicken, white or dark meat
- Two slices of white bread, crusts removed
- Three slices of quality bacon
- 20 grams of butter
- Two leaves of Romaine lettuce
- Stir together mayo and curry powder well in a ramekin or other small container.
- Leave in fridge covered for at least a few hours before using.
- Put a large colander or strainer over a bowl or pot, then pour canned tomatoes into colander.
- Sprinkle with a bit of salt and leave to drain until the liquid has drained off, this might take a few hours.
- When tomatoes have drained, set them aside and pour the accumulated tomato water/juice into a saucepan along with the cloves, cumin, coriander, ginger and red pepper flakes.
- Using a potato peeler, carefully remove remove the zest from the lemon in as large strips as possible, throw these into the saucepan as well.
- Turn burner to medium heat and let the mixture come to a boil, then lower heat slightly.
- Let mixture boil until it has reduced and thickened considerably, about 30 minutes.
- Carefully remove cloves and lemon zest using a spoon, turn the heat down to medium-low and stir in about two tablespoons of sugar.
- Keep reducing the liquid until you’ve reached a thick almost syrupy state, it will burn if you’re not careful!
- When liquid is syrup-like, dump in the drained tomatoes, stir and cook for another 15 - 30 minutes until mixture is no longer watery.
- Season mixture with salt and black pepper, then add the Tabasco and stir well.
- Taste for seasoning: Your tomato jam should be sweet and tomato-y with a definite warmth from the spices and a bit of a kick from the Tabasco. Some like it sweeter than others, so feel free to add more sugar if it’s not sweet enough for your palate. In much the same way, feel free to add more Tabasco if it’s not hot enough for you.
- Put the bacon in a cold skillet and set it over medium heat, cook until bacon is crisp and the fat has rendered out.
- Remove bacon from the pan, then add the butter and allow it to melt, foam up and go slightly brown.
- Put your slices of bread in the pan and toast until brown on one side, flip and repeat.
- Remove toasted bread from pan and smear each piece on one side with a generous amount of the curried mayo.
- Wash Romaine lettuce and place on top of one piece of bread, top the lettuce with the bacon followed by the chicken and a generous helping of the spicy tomato jam and, last but not least, the remaining slice of bread.
And so there you have it. My attempt at the World’s Best Club Sandwich using the World’s Best Curry Powder. I served this baby up with some home-made potato salad and home-made hot kosher pickles for a flavor-bursting HCHF feast to ring in the new year. I am, of course, not sure my sandwich was really the world’s best, as a matter of fact I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t, but it sure was probably the best sandwich I’ve ever made and that’s pretty much good enough for me.
As far as the role played by the curry powder goes, you might think it would drown completely in the sea of complimentary and contrasting flavors offered by this over the top sandwich and heavy sides… But then you’d be sadly mistaken. Believe it or not, the intensity of the CP44 curry powder actually powered through all other components of this plate including the bacon and the spicy tomato jam to leave a lingering, exotic note on the palate while adding an unfamiliar yet strangely welcome spiciness to the overall experience. Furthermore, the strong umami qualities of the blend help elevate the other flavors, including that of the chicken and the smoky meatiness of the bacon to new heights.
Well done, Alex and friends! You’ve made a new fan in this food blogging geek!