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The Curry Challenge

Thai Curry vs. Indian Curry

By AMELIA LEVIN

Addicted to curry? Perhaps. Some studies say the hotter elements in curry dishes cause the body to release endorphins, producing a natural high. No wonder the dish is so popular, spreading fast around the world from its roots in India to Pakistan and the Middle East, Thailand, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The most common misconception people seem to have about curry -- one this writer had -- is that curry dishes got their name only because they have curry spice in them. Not so. Curries are far more complex -- in their ingredients, preparation and taste. The term "curry" comes from the Tamil word "kari," which refers to a thick spice sauce of sorts that serves as the base for meats and vegetables and a topping for rice.

Many of us believe that curry is a spice in itself, when actually it is a blend of spices and herbs. Most curries contain ground up dried spices like coriander, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chili and peppercorns, which form the base for thickeners like yogurt and tomatoes as in tikka masala and biryani dishes or coconut milk and potatoes as in vindaloos. Many curries cook slowly in a tandoor, or clay oven, which creates a rustic taste and texture.

"Indian curries are based much more on dried spices like cumin, coriander and garam masala, so they're a bit earthier in their flavor," says Erin Waldron, manager at Vong's Thai Kitchen. Thai curries, she says, also contain dried coriander, but generally have more fresh ingredients like galanga -- a relative of ginger -- cilantro, white and green onions, garlic and lemongrass. Dried Thai chilies make curries from that region of the world much hotter.

At Vong's, the chilies are ground in with the spice mix until they form a paste. From there, coconut milk, stock, lemon and lime juices are added. At the last minute, the key ingredient that makes up the specific type of curry being prepared goes in -- turmeric spice for yellow curry, paprika for red and peanut butter for panang (peanut) curry. Green curry, another popular variation, gets its color from green Thai chilies.

Curry is similar to sushi, liverwurst and chickpeas -- you either love it or hate it. But how would you know if you haven't tried the variations of Indian and Thai curries? Read on to find out where to go for these spicy, indulgent treats in Chicago.

Thai Restaurants:

Amarind's
6822 W. North, 773-889-9999
Chef and owner Rangsan Sutcharit trained at Arun's, so he knows what he's doing with Thai food. The prices here are also a bargain, hovering around $10. Don't pass up the green curry with succulent chunks of chicken or the panang curry with slices of beef and a smooth, rich sauce. The soupy, good-for-you vegetable yellow curry comes loaded with baby eggplant, cauliflower, green beans and other veggies, and there is also red and mussaman curry on the menu. Service is friendly, though slow sometimes, and the decor is clean, modest and welcoming. Beer and wine only.

Arun's
4156 N. Kedzie, 773-539-1909
Chef and owner Arun Sampanthavivat masters authentic Thai cooking at this four-star, fine-dining restaurant with a menu consisting only of a 12-course sampler of the chef's picks for $85 per person. The beautifully presented and delicious food is worth the price, and the chef is very accommodating to diners with dietary restrictions. Curries here have come in the form of a creamy, fresh green curry chicken with Thai eggplant and an even more decadent, buttery lobster curry. Paintings by Sampanthavivat's brother adorn the wall. Diners can definitely look forward to a culinary experience with excellent service.

Bamee Noodle Shop
3120-3122 N. Broadway, 773-281-2641
Watch out folks. The green curry with fiery green chilies, coconut milk and bell peppers will light your mouth on fire, but some people love that kind of heat. The Panang curry here is not too spicy and is to die for, perhaps because it's simply rich. Prices are a bargain -- hovering around $6. Dine inside the well-lit, upbeat restaurant with light wood detailing for a casual, quaint experience and quick, friendly service. Or just stay home with carry-out or delivery.

Duck Walk
919 W. Belmont, 773-665-0455
The menu at this tiny Thai eatery and popular delivery place features your basic Thai curries, from red curry with bamboo shoots, bell peppers and eggplant to green curry with green beans and yellow curry with potatoes and peas. All the curries come with a choice of chicken, beef, tofu or shrimp and are sweeter in taste, due in part to the sweet basil leaves added to the dishes. The delicious panang curry is also sweeter with bell peppers, coconut milk and citrus leaves. Prices for the curries are a steal at $6.25, and the restaurant is BYOB.

Star of Siam
11 E. Illinois, 312-670-0100
This hotspot, perfect for business lunches and casual dinners, is known for its wide variety of curry dishes. The decadent peanut curry (panang nue) with beef or chicken and the thick, also peanut-y mussaman curry, reminiscent of earthy Indian flavors, are perfect comfort foods for those cold or bland days. Wake up your tastebuds with the classic and very hot, chicken curry (chicken pad ped) with coconut milk, bamboo shoot and hot pepper. For a milder option, choose the kang karee kai, a mild yellow chicken curry with potatoes and green peas, or the kang kheaw wan nue, brandied beef green curry with peas and eggplant, considered a favorite of the prime minister of Thailand. Seafood lovers can choose among the steamed catfish and cabbage in a hot curry sauce or the naughtier option -- deep-fried catfish with Thai eggplant in a thick, spicy curry. Prices are a bargain at about $6.25 each, plus $1 for a side of rice. Delivery is available.

Vong's Thai Kitchen
6 W. Hubbard, 312-644-8664
The favorites here are the traditional red chicken or beef curry and panang curry with either "pulled" chicken or shrimp. For a lighter option, opt for the yellow curry with vegetables or citrus curry with shrimp and scallops, a brothier, non-coconut milk version that has a yellow curry base as well as fresh lemon and orange zest. Prices range from $13.95 to $16.95.

Indian Restaurants:

Gaylord India
678 N. Clark, 312-664-1700
Aromatic curry dishes arrive tableside on generous, piping hot platters at this popular River North spot. Favorites are the not-too-spicy, pungent lamb vindaloo, shrimp pepper masala and spicy vegetable curry. When you get your check, though, take notice of the 15 percent service charge added to all bills. Entrees run between $8 and $15, but people really love the weekday lunch buffet with heaping piles of tandoori chicken and about a dozen other entrees for $9.45.

Hema's Kitchen II
2411 N. Clark, 773-529-1705
Cozy up in this warm storefront eatery with a bright orange interior for a quieter, more intimate experience, especially compared to the busy and buzzing original Hema's on Devon. Regulars love the lamb curry -- thick, juicy chunks of lamb in a dark, thick sauce boasting strong essences of cinnamon and cardamom. Portions are small, but very rich so they're great for sharing. Don't forget to order a side of the aromatic or pilaf rice and/or famous, grilled naan or paratha bread to soak up the good stuff. The creamy chicken tikka masala is just as rich and delicious with semi-sweet undertones, just be careful when specifying the heat level of your dish -- medium really means very hot -- even to this writer who can usually take the heat. The delectable fish curry is better for folks seeking milder tastes. Entrees are priced reasonably between $8 and $15, and don't forget to BYOB if you want a drink.

Indian Garden
2546 W. Devon, 773-338-2929
Regulars flock to this mainstay in "Little India," the original of a few locations in the Chicago area, for the lamb vindaloo, chicken tikka masala and other thick, tandoori dishes. Except for perhaps the tikka masala, hot is an understatement for many of the dishes, so if possible, specify them to be cooked on the milder side, or just order more naan. Tile covered walls and cumin-scented air make for a casual, comfortable dining environment, and prices per person range from around $15 to $25, but sharing is encouraged. The lunch buffet is affordable at $8.95.

Raj Darbar
2660 N. Halsted, 773-348-1010
This upscale, white tableclothed restaurant in Lincoln Park with traditionally dressed servers has an elaborate vegetarian menu. The main draw, however, is the meat selection, featuring delectable curries with chunky bits of lamb, chicken or shrimp, slow-cooked in the tandoor or karhai, an Indian cast iron wok. The restaurant claims the karhai dishes are lower in fat and cholesterol, and regulars rave about the moist, juicy tandoori chicken. Entree prices run $12 to $25, but try the Sunday brunch for $10.95.

Vermilion
10 W. Hubbard, 312-527-4060
Praised Chef Maneet Chauhan serves up Indian and Latin dishes and tapas at this sexy, hip restaurant, which lends itself to a more contemporary, fine dining experience amidst the sensual photography of India's leading fashion photographer, Farrokh Chothia, against a exotic fusion music. Vermilion combines contemporary Indian and Latin American cuisines, which share some of the same spices like cumin and coriander. You can't go wrong with the authentic Maharashtrian dishes, especially the malvani fish curry. Or seek out the classic Indian dishes subtly infused with a Latin twist like the tandoori skirt steak with garlic spinach and fried plantain, and lobster portuguese -- lobster tails in a mild stew of coconut and curry leaf gravy on a bed of Indian fried rice with saffron. Entree prices run between $12 and $22.

Published: April 01, 2006
Issue: Spring 2006