Simply put, vadouvan is a French curry powder. Curry powder — the version most of us are familiar with — is most likely a British invention. Both vadouvan and curry powder started as attempts to make Western versions of Indian spices that are easier for British and French people to use. Regular curry powder is a blend that was thought to reflect British preferences. Separately, vadouvan was believed to represent the Frenchman’s palate.
How do vadouvan and curry powder differ?
Vadouvan differs from curry powder in a few ways. First it relies heavily on aromatics like shallots and garlic. It is not made up mostly of dried spices like those in curry powder. The shallots and garlic are evidence of the French influence as is thyme. You don’t see thyme all that often in Indian food.
Another difference is that unlike curry powder, vadouvan is a French version of a spice blend that was being used before Europeans colonized the Subcontinent. The original version was sometimes called vadagam or vadavam. The Indian version consists of onion, garlic and other flavorful ingredients that were mixed with castor oil. The person making the vadavam would then roll the blend of seasonings and oil into balls before sun-drying them. The French version omits the sun-drying step and instead requires the blend to be dried in an oven.
Vadouvan was invented in a southeastern chunk of India that France carved out for itself called Pondicherry. The spices used in vadouvan are those popular in that part of India. While vadouvan may have originated because French cooks liked the spices they encountered in India, it may also be a case of them making do because they had no other options.
The ingredients in vadouvan are variable just as they are in curry powder and in authentic Indian blends like garam masala. There are certain ingredients that tend to show up in all vadouvan blends, but how much or as little of those ingredients go in is up to the cook. Cooks are also free to experiment by bringing in new spices.
Vadouvan was all but forgotten for a long time but was brought into contemporary cuisine in the early 2000s. It has once again become a popular spice blend.
Is vadouvan spicy?
As with most French food, vadouvan offers little in the way of spicy heat. While most blends will have a small amount of chili pepper (often from red pepper flakes), it is typically a very small amount. If you are a fan of fiery flavors, you won’t get much of those from the traditional versions of this spice blend but you can add the spice yourself. All the ingredients in vadouvan work just as well with vegetables as they do with meat.
Vadouvan flavor profile
Because the ingredients can vary, you can’t ascribe a single flavor to all vadouvan. However, most blends are savory with bright, sweet background notes.
Like most French ingredients, vadouvan cannot be described as pungent. Overall, its flavor profile is subtle and its spices complement without dominating. Ingredients like mustard seeds, coriander and turmeric offer gentle accents to food and strong spices like cardamom and cloves are used with the lightest of touches. The less assertive flavor makes it incredibly versatile.
Vadouvan is like other ground spice blends in that you can use it as a dry rub or to flavor stews, soups, and seafood.