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What is Madras Curry?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Madras curry is a blend of herbs and spices that originated in the South of India. This curry can accompany vegetables or meats, and it can feature a wide range of ingredients, although chili peppers are usually a fundamental ingredient. Many Indian restaurants offer various foods with this curry, ranging from chicken to lentils. Many stores sell a spice powder or paste for people who cook at home, and it is also possible for cooks to own version of this popular Indian seasoning.

The curry is named for the city of Madras, now known as Chennai. The heat of Southern India is ideal for growing chili peppers, and as a result, many Southern Indian foods are heavy on the chilies. The spicy and piquant Madras curry ended up being a big hit with British colonists in the region, and it is commonly available in Britain as a result. Classically, people think of this type of dish as being much hotter than other curries, although it can actually be quite variable in terms of heat.

In addition to chili peppers, Madras curry can also contain spices like turmeric, coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, fenugreek, allspice, black pepper, and curry leaves. The powder may also be blended with coconut milk or yogurt for a more creamy curry sauce, and ingredients like tamarind or citrus juice may be added to make it more tart and sour. In some regions, a flavorful sauce is made with the curry in a base of fried onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes, and the result can be both fiery and slightly oily.

People who are unaccustomed to hot food might want to go lightly on the curry while they experiment with it. They may want to advantage of classic sides for Indian curries like rice, breads such as naan, and raita, a cooling sauce made with yogurt, cucumber, mint, and other ingredients, depending on the region. Many Indian restaurants are also able to adjust the level of spiciness of their curry, for people who want a more mild version.

At home, cooks can use a purchased curry paste or powder, or they can try formulating their own. For the best result, chefs should use fresh spices and grind them as needed to conserve the flavor. One of the delightful things about Indian food is the range of side dishes and variation in individual recipes; “Madras curry” means many different things to different Indians, and as a result, cooks have a great deal of leeway with ingredients and the level of spicing that they want to use.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By turquoise — On Nov 15, 2012

As far as I know, the British are responsible for the invention of Madras curry. I don't think it was only a big hit with the British, I believe they played a part in making it. I think the fact that I have never seen Madras curry in Indian restaurants in the States also proves this point.

The British sure do love their Indian food. Did you guys hear that chicken tikka masala is the national food in Britain now?

By donasmrs — On Nov 14, 2012

@ysmina: Madras curry is not that spicy!

Have you ever heard of phaal curry? It's another curry that's really popular in the UK and it's very spicy, much spicier than Madras! It's made with several different kinds of chili peppers.

I think Madras is a mild curry, especially the ones served outside of India. It might still be a good idea to ask the server how spicy it is before ordering it though. Sometimes they do underrate the spiciness of curries on menus.

By rltomkinson — On Nov 14, 2012

I want my curry hot enough to make people sweat, cry and get their nose running. But I don't know what type of chili peppers to use. For other cooking I will use two dozen fresh habaneros, seeds and all. Will that work? Should I use dried habaneros instead?

By ysmina — On Nov 13, 2012

I've never had a Madras curry recipe and I think I'm too scared to try it. I heard that Madras curry is so spicy that it will make you cry. I do like spicy food, but not that spicy. I'll stick to regular curry.

By anon166206 — On Apr 07, 2011

use chili powder from an asian shop. it's a bag of red powder.

By rltomkinson — On Mar 19, 2010

If Madras curry powder is not a chili powder and is a spice blend of cumin, coriander, and turmeric, what makes their curry hotter than the curries of other regions?

By anon70938 — On Mar 16, 2010

Indians use different kinds of chili in different regions of india. Madras curry powder is not a chili powder - it is a spice blend of cumin, coriander, turmeric and several other flavorings.

The staple ingredients are always cumin and coriander. Most areas of India use a green chili similar to a thai chili in flavor and appearance (may even be a thai chili).

Regarding chili powders: south and central Indian chili powders are frequently made from a longer chili which is similar in appearance to a cayenne pepper. Northwestern Indians favor a less spicy chili for their chili powders: sweet like a hungarian paprika and bright vivid red color. Hope this answers some of your questions.

By anon63034 — On Jan 30, 2010

Emeril uses piri piri chiles abundantly.

By anon53894 — On Nov 25, 2009

I love Datil peppers, also called Scotch bonnets. They're hotter that jalopenos, not as hot as habaneros and they have a great flavor. It's not just heat.

By palamos — On Jun 17, 2009

has the Madras chili got gluten?

By candlemaker — On Jan 07, 2009

I don't know Indian chilies but the Thai red birds, little red chilies, are good and easy enough to find at least in a good size city. You can get them fresh or dried at an Asian market and you can probably get them somewhere on the internet. Habaneros might be good too. I agree about jalapenos, the heat just isn't there.

By anon13069 — On May 19, 2008

Chilies are part and parcel of any curry emanating from Madras. Usually a curry powder is made separately and red chilly powder is added during the cooking process. Sometimes pepper (or coarsely ground) powder is added (chettinadu style cuisine). Optionally freshly ground green chili paste is added.

By rltomkinson — On Apr 23, 2008

I like REALLY hot curry. I lived in Britain for 10 years, where I was introduced to Indian food. But I would like to know what kind of peppers, specifically, are used in Madras style curries. I have looked up Indian recipes on the web, some of which said they were authentic, but they never seem to list chili peppers as an ingredient. Emril gave a fan's recipe one time and said on the show what kind her mother used, but his web site listed jalapenos, which aren't (IMHO) hot. So what type do Indians use?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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