There's no absolute definition for curry, but suffice it to say it's Pan-Asian/Indian comfort food. Roughly translated as "gravy" or "sauce," traditional curry dishes from Thailand to India have found their way into the hearts and tummies of Americans. We do love comfort food, after all.
What better way to ring in the New Year than with a battle of two cultures, cuisines and curries. For the last Battle of 2009, we compared two sweet and savory curry dishes -- one from an East Valley Thai staple and the other from a new Indian joint in downtown Phoenix.
In One Corner: Hurry 4 Curry
455 N. 3rd St. in Phoenix
When Hurry4Curry first popped up in the Arizona Center, we were pretty excited: quick and easy Indian food just a few minutes from our office! It's basically upscale ethnic fast food, with dark red walls, an open kitchen and a few modern tables and a tall counter for seating. A soundtrack of modern Indian tunes plays in the background, and there are a few painted Indian miniatures on the walls.
Instead of the usual bored cashier, you get to place your order via a touch screen which allows you to select menu items and drinks and pay with card or cash. Pretty cool, especially when you're in an antisocial mood. We'd pre-selected a dish to try from the online menu, but when we arrived it wasn't on the touch screen.
Turns out the eatery only offers a handful of selected daily dishes, cooked in colorful cast iron pots and served alongside rice or naan bread. Oh, well. We ended up with the Butter Chicken, aka Chicken Makhani, a mildly spiced curry made by marinating the chicken overnight and then cooking it in a tomato-based sauce.
The fragrance of the sauce was pungent and savory, with hints of fenugreek and garem masala (think of it as the salt of Indian cuisine, as this spice blend is in practically every dish). A hearty side of jasmine rice accompanied the overflowing heap of curry that filled our paper plate.
The dish tasted as good as it smelled. Small chunks of chicken were tender and flavorful, and the sauce had high and low notes of various spices that amplified the creamy texture and acidity of the tomato gravy. Everything was well-balanced; there was just enough spice to make things flavorful without being hot. The rice was perfectly cooked, with a nice earthy taste. The only negative was the quality of the chicken -- which to be honest was pretty good for fast food, but not as lean as we would've liked.
The sauce was so good, we found ourselves wishing for some of the garlic naan bread offered for an extra buck with our meal. Next time, we'll splurge so we have something to mop up the gravy with.
In the Other Corner: Thai Basil
4929 W. Chandler Blvd. in Chandler
We were torn between two lunch specials: sweet nut curry and Thai peanut curry. What's the difference? No clue. When we asked, our server couldn't even tell us. "They're different," he said, "but I don't know how to explain it. The sweet nut curry's good." With that ringing endorsement, we placed an order for the sweet nut version.
Our curry arrived very prettily plated in a scalloped white china dish. On the side were a mini egg roll and a scoop of white rice (seriously, why don't they mash it down with a fork so it doesn't look like ice cream?). The curry smelled similar to Thai peanut curry, but with less spice.
As we bit into the first chunk of white meat chicken, we were surprised at the flavor. It was much sweeter than peanut curry, with just a touch of spice. If regular Thai peanut curry is similar to peanut butter, this curry is more like cashew or macadamia nut butter. Not that we're complaining.
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SHOW ME HOW
Thai spices kept the sauce from being cloyingly sweet, and thick strips of white meat chicken were plentiful. Carrots, onions and potatoes grounded the dish with earthy flavor, and added a variety of texture. Whole peanut garnish, when mixed with the rest of the ingredients, provided a nice crunch that paired well with the soft chicken and potatoes.
We've been known to grab a spoon and eat peanut butter out of the jar every once in a blue moon (shh... don't tell), and this sauce held a similar allure. Even after we'd consumed all of the chicken and veggies, we found ourselves using the remaining rice to sop up the nutty gravy.
Both dishes were excellent, but the added veggies and nuts plus the lower cost gave this sweet nut curry the edge.
The Winner: Thai Basil