Spicing up the kitchen

•Sue Mitra's Web business, Curry Curry, sellsâ€"and demystifiesâ€"the popular Indian sauce

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By REBECCA LOMAX

Does your spice rack have coriander, cumin and chile? OK, how about turmeric, garam masala or ginger? If you are missing any of those ingredients, you probably have never made curry from scratch.

That's the curse of curryâ€"so simple in definition yet so complex in execution. Curry is quite simply a mixture of spices used on meat or veggies and served with rice or bread. In reality, recipes include countless ingredients not found in your average American cupboard and flavors somewhat intimidating to an apple pie and hot dog crowd.

For North Riverside resident Sue Mitra, curry is something she has learned to love. She is about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her mail-order Internet curry business, Curry Curry. She started it with hopes of demystifying the Indian sauce through a simplified system of pre-mixed, numbered curries and corresponding recipes.

But her spice rack wasn't always so diverse. Never a big cook, it was upon meeting her future husband at college that she was introduced to this way of cooking. Samar Mitra moved from Bangladesh in the mid-1990s to study computer programming at Eastern Illinois University, where Sue Mitra was working on her bachelor's degree in early childhood education.

"I didn't really cook then, but I would cook a lot of Indian food with his sister," she explains. "And then I just started cooking more and more and more."

As Mitra completed her master's in school administration, she continued refining her own curry recipes by cooking them for friends and family. Friends began asking for copies of her recipes.

"If I gave them the recipe, they would say, I'm not going to get all these ingredients," Mitra says.

She tried recommending pre-packaged curries but was disappointed to find that most contained more salt than spice. So she began figuring out some ratios for her recipes. Mitra buys in bulk and mixes by hand so she wasn't even sure how much of what she was using.

Shaping the product

As she was figuring out the recipes, the rest of her family was also on the job. Her brother, a photographer, and his wife, a photo stylist, designed the labels and logo and then shot the product and ingredients for the Web site.

Mitra's husband, who is self-employed, walked her through the issues of setting up a business. He and his brother, both computer programmers, set up the Web site. Even her sister-in-law jumped in by faxing over a list of potential company names including the one Mitra chose.

"This is a fun business, so everyone wanted to help with it and be a part of it," she says.

And all of this help left Mitra with time to concentrate on developing the product.

Although more than proficient in curry making by this point, she needed to narrow down what she was going to sell and how it was going to work.

"I took my recipes, and then I modified them a lot, and people still thought there was too much cutting of vegetables," Mitra says. She held countless tastings to make sure the simplified recipes were still bold in flavor.

She ended up with four distinctive curries that she has paired with simple preparations available online. To certify the simplicity and ease of the recipes, she put her husband, a non-cook, alone in the kitchen with a jar of her curry and a print-out of a recipe. And he did just fine.

The basics

Although the word curry is inextricably linked to the cuisine of India, the word is not used there.

"It's not used in India because everything there is curry," Mitra says.

It is assumed it was the British who coined the term to refer to a wide variety of foods and have since spread it across the world.

Log on to currycurry.net and click on products and you get the quick tour of what's for sale. Curries No. 1 through 4 can be bought individually in 2.5-ounce jars, or as a set. They also come in a starter kit with additional spices and recipes. That's all that's for sale; the rest of the site is to help buyers use and understand the products.

Mitra says that No. 1 and No. 2 seem to be most popular in repeat orders.

"Curry No. 2 is a very basic, traditional one," Mitra says of the blend of coriander, cumin, chile and turmericâ€"and no salt, like all of her mixes. "If you go to an Indian restaurant that's what you're getting."

All of the powdered curries are reddish-orange in color except No. 4 which is more yellow. "Curry No. 4 has mustard seeds in it, and people are unsure how to cook with it, or at least my generation," she says. "People 35 and under have never seen a mustard seed."

She decided on naming them by numbers because anything else seemed misleading.

"I didn't want to misrepresent by using Hindi or Bengali words," she says.

The general information includes the details of different peppersâ€"from serrano chiles to jalapeñosâ€"that can be added to up the heat of the dish to the preferred level.

"They're all mild because you can make them as spicy as you want," she explains. But for some even the extra step of adding heat seems to be too much. She's thinking of adding a spicier version to her line at some point, too.

Also included are side dishes and non-curry recipes as well for a complete meal.

Cumin, chile, and coriander

"The first time you order you don't know what you're getting â€"you don't know what five pounds of cumin looks like," Mitra says. She was already buying in bulk, but going large-scale bulk has been a different experience.

Spices have a shelf-life of around six months, with whole spices lasting a little longer. Cumin, chile and coriander are her top three, but she also deals in a lot of turmeric, mustard seed, ginger and garam masala.

"I try to have a turnaround time of two months for all my spices," she says.

Her kitchen is newly redone, a three-month process that has more than tripled her counter space and brought in shiny stainless-steel appliances. On top of her new stove sit curries 1 through 4.

"Now I find that I use them," she says. The Mitras eat Indian for dinner more often than not. "Once you start eating spicy food it's hard to go back."

She says they are particularly fond of the Cumin Cauliflower and Potatoes that is made with Curry No. 2.

She's poised to jump full-time into the business when her summer break from school hitsâ€"she'll return in fall as the assistant principal at Goodwin School in Cicero.

On top of her list is getting the curries on the shelves of local stores. Mail-order works great for long distances, but for locals picking it up from the grocery is simpler.

She has also had a lot of requests to expand her menu to include desserts, so she's going to begin testing simplified versions of those.

"It's been about the food for me, but I need to concentrate more on the business," she says.

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