Curry powder gets a lot of knocks from people, often deservedly so. It's frequently a stale, forgotten member of the pantry, pulled out to add some inarticulate interest to a dish without much thought to what's in it or what it does to food. Through the efforts of mega-merchants who want to make it everything to everyone who wants to cook "ethnic," it stretches itself far too thin. It masks rather than enhances, a gritty flavor bomb without rhyme or reason.
It's not that curry powders are bad per se. I like to have a few well-crafted spice blends on hand: They're convenient, and when made by a skilled spice blender, really delicious.
The problem with most curry powder is how much it has going on. Its stink of cumin is at war with black pepper's kapow. The preponderance of bland turmeric in most blends makes the unplaceable heat almost suspicious. It's stuff I may stir into mayonnaise or toss onto cauliflower for a casual dinner, but it doesn't satisfy me either as an all-purpose spice or a targeted seasoning for any serious cooking.
That's where vadouvan comes in. It's a French-ified curry powder that's enjoyed a burst of publicity the last couple of years from chefs, eaters, and Top Chef audiences. Though blenders can play fast and loose with the ingredients, vadouvan is calculated and orderly in comparison to most "Madras" curry powders. Its French influences set its base firmly in granulated or pulsed shallots, onions, and sometimes garlic, the effect of which is difficult to overstate. Bittersweet fenugreek is almost as essential, and curry leaves make frequent appearances.
Vadouvan's ingredient list can run epically long, but its flavor is blissfully streamlined. It's a sexy, super-savory blast of spice, just exotic enough, that enhances, rather than masks food. And unlike its mass-produced cousins, it's a curry powder you really can add to most anything.
Beyond its savory, allium-centric character, vadouvan is sweet and just a tad smoky (the result of careful toasting of spices before blending). Its aroma is that of entering a spice market, complex but welcoming. Encumbered by pepper, chile, cumin, and most aromatic sweet spices, vadouvan skips lightly from meat of all kinds to white and root vegetables, soups (especially puréed) to sauces (both rich creams and thin intense jus). I like my vadouvan with a little fennel seed for an extra sweet dimension, but that's just me. You can always add other spices to your vadouvan as you go, but keep in mind that its restraint is its virtue.
How to Use Vadouvan
Vadouvan can tread anywhere that old curry powder can, and usually better. Because it's still a relatively rare product with gourmet caché the quality of its components are higher than most blends. Its simpler flavors come through sharper, especially when played off starchy vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat. Vadouvan is bold enough to stand up to flavors like lamb (or goat!) and tangy yogurts, but delicate enough to play nice with demure chicken and winter squash. The longer it cooks—especially when fried in some fat—the more its rich, roasted qualities come to the fore. I love it this way, though I sprinkle some extra on just before serving to refresh its lighter flavors.
More than anything else, vadouvan rewards creativity. Think popcorn, dip for chips, vinaigrettes, and endless meat rubs destined for grilling. Heck, a dash in or on ice cream (especially chocolate) would be great. Many blends have no heat or salt at all, so it's much more difficult to overwhelm whatever you're cooking. This is a spice to have fun with, foodie fuss aside. And once you get to know it better, it'll be a pantry staple before you know it.
Where to Find Vadouvan
Low demand means vadouvan is relatively expensive, and individual merchants have their own recipes. I'm especially partial to the blend from Kalustyan's ($10 for 3 ounces) because of its inclusion of fennel seed. The Spice House sells a streamlined version ($6 for 4 ounces) while Savory Spice Shop sells a more complicated blend reminiscent of curry powder (but done right, at $8 for 4 ounces). Check the ingredient list before you buy to know what you're getting. Or go hardcore and make your own, which earns you endless street cred as far as I'm concerned.