To most Americans, curry is synonymous with the spicy, yellowish stewlike dish commonly available on Indian restaurant menus. Or it's associated with the aromatic powder (probably stale) in the spice cabinet.

Yet, these images do little justice to the endless variety and global reach of curried dishes.

For centuries, curries have played a part in India's culinary heritage. No strict recipe exists for curry - it is derived from the Tamil word "kari," meaning sauce. Rather, cooks base their curries upon what is seasonal, available and palatable to them. As a result, some dishes contain chunks of meat, while others showcase local fish, vegetables or legumes - or even just a savory gravy.

What all have in common is the richly flavored, wet or paste-like sauce made of raw, freshly ground herbs and spices. Seasonings such as coriander, curry leaves, tamarind and turmeric vary according to the region.

AN EMPIRE STRIKES GOLD

Credit goes to the British Empire for popularizing curry in the West. When colonial administrators and soldiers returned to England, they brought back an insatiable appetite for fiery Indian cuisine. Ultimately, this craving would result in the mass production of the pulverized spice blend known as curry powder.

British curries caught on like wildfire with one specific offering, chicken tikka masala, which, by the 21st century, had become, by some lights, England's national dish. Most likely crafted by an Indian restaurateur, chicken tikka masala combines grilled, marinated chicken cubes with a hearty tomato-cream sauce.

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IMPROVING ON PERFECTION

While the British altered curry on their shores, Indians living in countries as diverse as Kenya, Indonesia, Trinidad and Thailand began to tinker with their renowned viand. Reflecting the culinary traditions and techniques of their adopted lands, their new curry recipes blended the best of multiple cuisines.

In Indonesia, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves gave curries a local flavor, while scorching Scotch bonnet peppers, chopped garlic and onion, parsley and thyme provided a Trinidadian touch to curries there.

Thai curries featured a trio of hot, sweet and sour flavors. To achieve this balance of contrasting tastes, a hand-pounded paste of chiles, shallots, garlic, lemongrass and ginger was seasoned with ground cumin and coriander. Sauteed in coconut milk, fish sauce and tamarind paste, the resultant sauce had a uniquely Thai-Indian flare.

IN TODAY'S KITCHENS

Today, curry remains one of the most global foods in existence. Widespread interest in hot and exotic cuisines partly explains its popularity. If making your own curry at home, keep in mind that pre-made curry powder quickly loses its potency. For the best results, grind your own spices in a coffee or spice grinder. Store any leftover curry blend in an airtight container for no longer than two months.

YELLOW LENTIL CURRY

1 cup yellow lentils

1 tablespoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon salt

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5 to 6 cups water

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon chopped white onion

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2 teaspoons ginger, minced

2 teaspoons green chile pepper, chopped

2 plum tomatoes, chopped

1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

Handful fresh coriander, washed and chopped

2 whole, dried red chiles

1. In a large saucepan, bring the yellow lentils, turmeric, salt and 5 to 6 cups of water to a boil. Skim the foam off the top, cover the pan with a lid and simmer over medium-low for roughly 1 hour. When finished, the lentils will be soft and broken down. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

2. In a medium saute pan, heat the olive oil. Add the cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, chopped onion, ginger and green chiles. Saute until the onion browns. Add the tomatoes and saute until they have softened, about 1 minute. Add the red chili powder and boiled lentils to the cooked onion-tomato mixture. The resultant dish will be soupy but not runny. Check and adjust the seasonings as needed.

3. Finish the dish with chopped coriander and whole red chiles. Serve with a side of steamed basmati rice. Makes 4 servings.

CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

Note: The chicken will need to marinate at least an hour in the refrigerator before being grilled, so allow extra time for this recipe.

For the chicken tikka

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, mashed to a paste

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon garam masala (available online and at Indian markets)

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes

Cooking spray or canola oil, for greasing the grill

For the masala sauce:

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 1/2 cups plum tomatoes, diced

3 cloves garlic, mashed to a paste

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup plain yogurt

1. In a large bowl, mix the 1/2 cup yogurt, salt, mashed garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper, paprika and garam masala. Add the chicken and toss to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

2. When you are ready to grill the chicken, lightly oil and then preheat your grill. At this time, you can prepare the sauce.

3. In a medium saute or frying pan, heat the canola oil. Add the tomatoes, garlic, turmeric, cayenne pepper, paprika and cumin; saute until softened.

4. Tumble the cooked ingredients into a blender. Add the garam masala, salt and yogurt, and blend until a thick puree has formed. Return the sauce to the pan.

5. Thread the chicken cubes onto metal or presoaked bamboo skewers, allowing space between each cube so the chicken cooks more evenly. Place the skewers on the grill and, turning occasionally, cook until the cubes have browned slightly and the interior of the meat no longer looks pink.

6. Remove the chicken cubes from the skewers and place them in the pan with the sauce. Toss the ingredients together and allow them to simmer on low heat for 5 minutes. Serve over basmati rice. Makes 4 servings.