I grew up in the 70’s and back then my knowledge of making a curry was that you used ready-to-use curry powder that would be either mild or hot on the label and then you threw all the ingredients in the pan at once.
Obviously in the modern age, with rather more cookbooks to choose from, most of us will know that’s not the best way to make a curry.
But it’s also well known that the best curries are made by Indian families, following the recipes and methods handed down to them by their grandmothers.
I was lucky. During the years when I had an Indian partner, I had the opportunity to learn to cook authentic Indian-style curries as taught by the superb and knowledgeable women of his family.
The family were Sikh, from the Punjab in Northern India. Punjabi cuisine is known for its rich, buttery flavours and a wide range of vegetarian and meat dishes.
So what was the essential difference?
The older Indian families would use ghee (clarified butter), which is high in saturated fat and can be a large factor in heart disease. Younger generations now tend to use rapeseed or grapeseed oil to reduce risks.
But the main difference was how the spices were cooked out at the beginning. This is key to developing the levels of flavour from the spices that is the biggest difference between really great Indian food and the rest.
This is now what I do when I’m cooking a curry.
I begin with just the cumin seeds in medium hot oil. Let the seeds cook until they begin to fizz. Only then do you add the onions.
The onions have to be cooked out until they’re translucent, then you add finely chopped fresh ginger, garlic and chillies. You cook these for a good five to ten minutes before adding the dry spices.
Once you add the remaining spices and cook them for a further minute, the mixture will look really dry. You might be tempted at this point to add oil, but this would be a big mistake! If oil’s added at that point, the finished dish could end up being greasy, since the spices have their own oils which get released during cooking.
Only at this point do you add your tomatoes and a tiny quantity of water, to cook on for another ten to fifteen minutes with the lid on the pan, until thick and glossy. That gives you the masala sauce that you can then add whatever meats or vegetables you want in your curry.
Give it a try, and let me know how you get on. I’ve copied below a chicken curry recipe using this process, but you can adapt it to your own choice of meat if you wish.
- 2 chicken thighs
- 2 chicken breasts can be substituted by quorn for vegetarian
- 2 onions
- 1 potato large
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds heaped
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 inch root ginger
- 1 green chilli
- 1 teaspoon turmeric heaped
- 1 teaspoon coriander powder heaped
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder heaped
- half teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons tomato puree
- 400g tomatoes chopped
- 1 teaspoon garam masala heaped
Peel and dice potato, finely chop onion, garlic, ginger and chilli.
Heat a little oil in a pan and add cumin seeds cook until they ’fizz’. Add the onions and cook for further 5 minutes stirring occasionally.
Add ginger and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes. Add all spices except Garam Masala and cook out for another minute, Mixture will become dry but don’t add more oil. Then add tomato paste and chopped tomatoes with a little water. Stir and cover, cook for 10 minutes till thick and glossy, if mixture starts to stick add a little hot water.
When cooked (oil starts to rise to top and looks glossy) add chicken and sear on high heat. Add potato and 150 mls hot water and cover and simmer for about 30 minutes stirring occasionally.
5 minutes before end of cooking add Garam Masala. When ready, garnish with fresh coriander and serve with basmati rice.