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Many of the premixed curry pastes and curry dishes I have eaten have a brownish / reddish colour to them.

I have a nice collection of spices that I cook with, but my curries seem to always look and taste quite similar. Most of these are a yellowy colour, dominated by turmeric.

Thinking of butter chicken and also a goat masala that is available at a local restaurant; what dominant coloured spice am I missing that would give my curries a red or brown colour?

I am assuming that these would introduce me to some new flavours that I can mix and match with.

Note: I already have paprika.

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up vote 19 down vote accepted

I've seen a lot of different curry recipes with varying levels of authenticity, but the most common ingredients I see in curries that might impart that colour are:

  • Garam masala (brown)
  • Chili powder (red)
  • Cumin (brown)
  • Paprika (red)
  • Tandoori powder (usually a mix of masala, cumin, ground red pepper, fenugreek, and others - very red)
  • Saffron (red)

Still, it's all kind of a moot point, because, in Indian restaurants the most common source of red is actually red food colouring. Don't kid yourself; Indian restaurants use plenty of "artificial" ingredients - they also usually use food colouring in the saffron rice, which is how they get those few vibrant red grains to mix in with the yellowish rice.

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Yep, most Indian restaurants do not serve Indian food. It's a sad state of affairs. I am not talking regional differences here, it just not even close. – TFD May 9 '11 at 3:00
@TFD: That statement is true for most major foreign cuisines in most countries. There is usually a localised variant on the cuisine. – Orbling May 9 '11 at 3:46
While garam masalas and cumin lend brown colouring to the sauce, don't forget that browning the onions well has an effect on the final colour too. – Gary May 9 '11 at 7:33
Garam masala is not a spice - it's a spice mixture, literally translates to 'hot mixture'. It often includes several brown spices. Cinnamon is probably the one contributing most to the brown color, but there are other brown spices in there as well. – paul May 10 '11 at 6:19
saffron does not make things red, yellow maybe orange at a push but not red. – NimChimpsky Sep 27 '12 at 9:31

I actually have two slightly Zen comments about this, in that they don't answer your question though they may solve your quandary.

First, you might have the right spices but get the ratios wrong. In my exeprience, the ration of cumin to turmeric is about 4 to 1, sometimes more. Turmeric is to be used sparingly, half a teaspoon is usually plenty in a big dish. This may be why things are a little too yellow.

Second, colour doesn't only come from spices. A source of a lot of redness, at least in the Indian food that I know how to make, is tomatoes. I once learned from an Indian chef that a lot of dahls and curries have onions and tomatoes in them, usually grated to pulp.

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The brown colour that seems to predominate many 'curry' dishes comes mostly from the largish (in proportion to other ingredients) quantities of cumin and coriander used as the main basis for most indian curries. The addition of garam masala towards the end of cooking will also impart a brownish colour.

The red colour you refer to can come from any number of different sources, which is why it's unwise to use 'colour' as a basis for what the dish my actually taste like, or trying to replicate the taste of a dish based on its colour.

The red colouring can come from: artificial colouring, tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato puree, red chilli's, chilli powder, paprika and so on.

If you're trying to replicate the 'flavour' or taste of a specific dish it's far better to try and do so with spice combinations and ingredients and cooking techniques than worrying about the final colour.

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turmeric gives a orangey terracotta colour

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Other than red chili powder (not the spice blend you use to make chili, but just ground chili peppers) and cumin mentioned above, another ingredient I was introduced to by an Indian friend is tamarind. Adds some brown to curries, but also a wonderful sweet and sour flavor.

I second the comments about making sure you've thoroughly browned your onions... should take a good 30 minutes, and not overdoing the turmeric.

On the tomato front, you also want to make sure that after adding tomatoes - typically after browning the onions and frying the spices - that you cook down the resulting mixture until the oil starts to separate from the tomato mixture.

All of this and you should definitely not end up with a yellow curry.

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It's probably cinnamon, even in small quantities, it disperses very well in liquids and has a lot of color, and it's commonly found in garam masala blends. I'm guessing it's pretty likely to be cinnamon because adding a very small amount of ground cinnamon to a light colored food like oatmeal or white flour dough turns them from white/beige to brown.

Turmeric was already mentioned, it's the main colorant used in yellow curries and a very small amount of that turns things bright yellow, but combined with other common curry it might turn brownish as well (anise, cumin, coriander) esp with something like lentils.

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I too notice that curry pastes are less yellowy than curry powders. Maybe the oil-base dissolves the pigments better or the oil itself is rather dark? Could there also be tamarind in the paste? That certainly darkens a dish.

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Usually Indian curries have a spice base that has a ratio like this- (say for 1 kg of meat) 1/4 to 1/2tsp turmeric : 1tsp red chili powder(Kashmiri mirch or Degi mirch) : 1TBS coriander powder

The red of the chili powder with the yellow turmeric & green/brown of the coriander with browned onions in suspension give the reddish brown hues many Indian curries have.

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The Indian curries get their color usually from the spices used (red chilly powder, turmeric, garam masala... etc.)
My family personally likes dark red / brown colored spicy curries.... and to achieve that I usually use fresh tomato puree and paste of fried onions.
I slice large onions and deep fry them till crisp and then store them in the refrigerator in an air-tight container (they stay good for 8-10 days).
And then when I'm required to use them in my curries, i just grind them in my mixer grinder by adding a spoon of water to make nice thick paste... and use it in my curry..... And from there my curries get a lovely dark red color...!!!

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