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The flavor of a curry usually improves overnight. Harsh overtones mellow and disparate elements combine for a richer, more coherent result. Some people think this is just because the flavors from whole spices have more time to infuse (and larger chunks of vegetables and meat exchange flavors with the sauce base).

However, I think there's more to it than that. Even with a curry without large chunks of food or whole spices, the flavor still seems to improve over time. Is this really so, and if so, why?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In addition to oxidation as put forward by @Stefano, you also have

  • Slow chemical reactions between compounds. Oxidation is only one chemical reaction that happens, there are many more
  • Concentration of flavors due to the evaporation of water will give a more intense flavor
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Thanks, GdD. It certainly seems there's more going on than just the oxidation of meat and fats; otherwise you might expect a similar taste from freshly cooked dal prepared with oil that had oxidized overnight! That doesn't seem to be the case. (Also, the kind of blending and mellowing of flavors I'm describing isn't just a concentration from evaporation.) Could you give an example of the other chemical reactions you mention? –  Joe Pairman Mar 6 '13 at 23:56
    
Marking this as the answer for now. @Stefano rightly got many up-votes for his well-researched answer, including one from me. However, I feel this answer by GdD is actually the more complete in scope, though less detailed. As I mentioned, for a vegetable or lentil curry it doesn't seem possible that the improvement in flavor is mostly due to fat oxidation. GdD or anyone else, if you get time to provide more details on the various chemical processes, that would be very interesting. –  Joe Pairman Mar 9 '13 at 5:57

It's down to oxidation reactions that are remarkably similar to those that cause meat and fats to go rancid. From Modernist Cuisine (2-98):

...[B]raised and pot roasted meats often develop a richer, more complex flavour if they have been cooled and aged after cooking, then later reheated for service. Surprisingly, the oxidation reactions that cause this flavour-enhancing phenomenon are similar to those that cause meats and fats to go rancid. Although too much oxidation in meat is repulsive, a hint of slowly oxidised aromatic compounds can be quite pleasant.

Also, certain herbs such as thyme and rosemary contain antioxidants that moderate the rate of oxidation thus helping to achieve the right amount of aged flavour, it's reasonable to infer that certain herbs and spices used in Asian cuisine perform a similar function.

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Thanks for the info, Stefano. Is this only for meats, or also non-meat dishes? I've noticed overnight improvements in dals and vegetable curries, but I'm not sure if that's due to the same process. I also wonder why this effect seems particularly noticeable in curries. –  Joe Pairman Mar 6 '13 at 14:15
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In short, I'm not sure if it only applies to meat; MC specifically mentions meat but then the section is in the part of the book concerning braising pieces of meat so it could just be a function of that. However, it could be possible that the fats in your curries such as ghee or coconut fat could be be undergoing this ageing process too. –  Stefano Mar 6 '13 at 14:44
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+1 for referencing MC. Though if Oxidization was the only driver, you'd expect old/stale curry and peas would make great Dahl. Adding water does not accelerate food oxidization. –  MandoMando Mar 6 '13 at 16:10
    
That's not actually what it's saying, if the curry is stale then the oxidation reaction has gone too far. –  Stefano Mar 8 '13 at 10:05

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