The Idiot’s Guide to Curry, Part 1: Indian Curry
For my sins, I’m the family spice queen, probably because I loathe plain steamed food – unless I can add lemon juice, olive oil (or butter), salt or pepper to food, I give it a miss. So sue me. At this stage of my life, I’ve earned the right to toss out horrible food and this brings me to the subject of curry: I haven’t been overthrown with great curry during the course of my life & have had to learn to do it myself – luckily it isn’t difficult & requires only love, decent spices, imagination & a little knowledge.
If you have no desire to put in the effort, pick up the phone and order take out. So, before I start, let’s get a few things straight: the word curry is not an Indian word and can’t be found any one of the India’s 14 official languages and heaven knows how many dialects; the closest two are kari and kadhi which are sauce based dishes that are seriously ancient (the Indian civilization is over 6,000 years old); in James Trager’s book he writes about the spices used by the Mohenjo-Daro people who lived in the Indus Valley around 4,000 BC and how they used mortars and pestles to pound cumin, fennel, sun-dried mustard seeds and the rinds of tamarind pods. If you’re interested in finding out a little more about this, buy the book – you’ll be so inspired that you’ll never be able to eat another tasteless wannabe curry made from pre-prepared curry powder of dubious shelf life.
STUFF YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT INDIAN CURRY
- If you read the paragraph above you’ll know that curry is not an Indian word & you can have great fun with that little snippet of information at the dinner table but for the purpose of our purpose, we’ll be calling it curry.
- A stew made with a few teaspoons of curry powder from your local retailer is not curry, it is a stew and it usually tastes pretty awful.
- You don’t put jam into an Indian curry, in fact, you don’t put jam into any curry.
- Fruit is used in some Indian curries but tinned mandarins do not belong in an Indian curry; as far as I’m concerned they don’t belong in any dish.
- Indian food is not only regional, it’s cultural so there will never be one correct way to make Indian curry, there are probably thousands.
- Curries have to be balanced – in other words, the taste, the smell, the texture and the way it looks needs to work – much like the notes of a piece of decent music.
- When you eat Indian curry, your tongue not only identifies the bitter, the sour, the sweet, the salty and, according to the Japanese, we also taste umami but it also tastes the pungent (the hot) and the astringent and the latter two are very important.
THE TASTES OF CURRY
- Bitter: many westerners aren’t crazy about this taste or rather, weren’t; now that curry is becoming so popular, the flavour is being accepted more readily; to add this flavour to your dish, look to fenugreek, amaranth, bitter melon, black cumin (be very careful with this one), mustard and turnip.
- Sour: most people love this taste and nowadays we find tamarind in most home kitchens but tomatoes, malt, vinegars, lemon juice, unripe mangoes & pineapples, limes, kokum (if you can find it), yoghurt and buttermilk will provide loads of sour flavour to your curry.
- Salty: we can’t live without salt & food tastes ghastly without it but do use it with care because too much kills any dish; in Indian curries ordinary and black salt is often used.
- Sweet: a vital taste in any curry, in India it often helps to cool the heat and balance the bitter; curries from eastern India (where the bitter is prominent) need a good bit of sweet to balance it all out. Here you can use jiggery, white sugar, dried and fresh fruit (raisins are great) and the spices like fennel, nutmeg, mace (one of my favourites) and brown sugar (bear in mind this does give a very particular flavour); finally, when making a duck curry, bear in mind that cherries go with duck like salt with pepper.
- Umami: this is a tricky one to describe, even for a food obsessed person like myself, but it’s that element that brings the flavour out and gives a coating effect (monosodium glutamate does that but you know you mustn’t use it, right?); to help you understand I include a link.
- Hot (pungent): this is easy and you’ll find it in chillies, ginger, black peppercorns and even cloves (to some extent). It may be interesting to note that black peppercorns are throat hot, chillies cover the lips and the sides of the mouth, ginger gets the nose going and cloves can exude numbing heat … yes, they can.
- Astringent: you’ll get this by adding asafoetida, turmeric and maybe even teflam seeds if you can get them.
- Aromatic: this is mixture of smells & memories and will be found in bay leaves, coriander leaves, curry leaves, fresh dill, fenugreek, mint as well as cardamom (both kinds), cumin (both kinds), coriander seeds, cinnamon, cassia and star anise.
- Oils, liquids, thickeners and stabilizers: these are essential for building a curry – so don’t, for a second, think you can do without them; you need a good flavourless oil with a high smoking point for sizzling your spices – peanut oil is fine as long as someone isn’t allergic to it, corn oil is great, rice oil isn’t bad and it certainly is flavourless and ordinary grapeseed oil is ideal (yes, there’s a difference between rapeseed and grapeseed). Depending on the dish you’re cooking, you could use perfumed oils like unrefined sesame oil (great for curries from the south east of India where’s it’s known as gingelly oil) or mustard oil (for the curries from the north (just remember it’s bitter qualities) or ghee which is my favourite.
- Garlic and onion: these two ingredients are often not used by the Jains and the Brahmins but that’s a story for another day.
FRIED ONION PASTE
This is great for north Indian curries and will give you an amazing sweet, dark base for a mellow dark curry.
- 1 kg red onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
- 1 tsp freshly grated turmeric (optional)
- 65 ml grape seed or canola oil
- Pre-heat your wok over medium heat, pour in the oil and swish it around gently to coat the bottom of the pan; the oil will get hot almost immediately and start shimmering – add the onions & the freshly grated turmeric and fry, stirring occasionally, until the are deep caramel brown – it will take about half an hour or just a little less; at first they stew but will start cooking down and as this happens you need to stir almost constantly; when ready, remove from the wok, place in a dish and set aside to cool down.
- Now pour 250 ml water into a blender, add the onions and puree, scraping the inside of the jar as you need it – blend for a good while so that you have a velvety smooth paste that can be added to a zillion curry dishes.
- If you have any left over, it will keep in your fridge for up to a week.
STUFF YOU NEED
- Electric spice grinder
- Mortar and pestle
- Food processor
- Mini chopper
- A wok or a heavy based saucepan
- A good curry pot that you use for nothing else – it must have a heavy base, a well fitting lid and not Teflon
THE GOLDEN RULES
- Never ever buy pre ground spices or curry powder – you never know how long they’ve been on the shelf – so buy them whole and grind yourself.
- Accept that you’ll need to sizzle your spices in oil – there’s is no such thing as an oil free Indian curry, so if you don’t want to use oil, don’t make Indian curry.
- Make a little paste each time you need it, rather than a whole lot but if you’ve made double, you can store it in the fridge for up to two weeks.
- Indians will shoot me for this but I often turn my spices into pastes and turn those into cook-in sauces for my sons – if you’re in a hurry, it’s a delicious way to entertain in the week when you really don’t have time.
GINGER CHILE PASTE
This is really important in any curry and it’s a sort of heat-giving paste that cannot be eaten on it’s own unless you’ve travelled this spicy route for some years. This is recipe with a difference.
- 240 g grated fresh ginger
- 12 fresh green Thai chiles (or Serrano or any other hot green chilli), stems removed but not the seeds
- Pour 125 ml water into your blender, add the chillies and the ginger and grind and blend until you have the smoothest paste you’re going to get.
- Keep in a tightly sealed jar in your fridge where they keep for a week; if necessary, you can divide it into much smaller containers and freeze this for up to a month.
COCONUT LAMB CURRY WITH ONIONS
I was flipping through my curry recipes and came across this one for lamb – it’s super interesting and packed with flavour and as good a place to start as any.
- 750 g leg of lamb, deboned and with fat trimmed off, cut into bite sized cubes
- 2 small red onions, coarsely chopped
- 1 large red onion, finely chopped
- 6 large cloves garlic
- 3 tbsp freshly grated ginger
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp grape seed or flavourless oil of your choice
- 2 fresh green Thai chillies (or Serrano), stems removed and cut in half lengthways – and don’t remove the seeds.
- 1 medium unripe mango, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
- 1 tbsp Kolhapuri masala*
- Salt to taste
- 250 ml fresh coconut grated or 125 ml dried coconut, grated
- 125 ml coriander leaves, chopped
- Put the onion, the garlic and the coriander seeds in a food process and process constantly (don’t pulse) to create a pulpy, slightly watery marinade – put this in a bowl and add the lamb to this, stir the meat around to make sure it’s covered with the marinade and then cover and refrigerate overnight (I usually put everything in a huge Ziploc bag, remove all the air and seal; in this way the meat is in constant contact with the marinade).
- Heat the oil in a large heavy based saucepan and add the finely chopped onion and the chillies and cook, covered, stirring every now and then, until the onion is a caramel colour – it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
- Add the lamb with the marinade and stir once or twice; raise the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally until the marinade is absorbed and the meat begins to brown.
- Stir in one cup of water and then add the mango, the masala and the salt; cover the saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally until the mango pieces have softened but still look firm and the lamb is tender (around half an hour); stir in the coconut and the corianders leaves and serve immediately.
- Tip: if you’re using dried coconut, cover with 125 ml of boiling water & soak for 15 minutes to reconstitute it, then drain and use.
- 250 ml dried red Thai chillies (or Cayenne chillies), stems removed but not the seeds
- 125 ml dried coconut, shredded
- 2 tbsp white sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp dried coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp dried cumin seeds
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp black or yellow mustard seeds (I prefer the yellow ones here)
- 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 4 large blades mace
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 tsp tasteless oil
- 2 tbsp Kashmiri chillies, ground or, if you can’t get it, 1.2 tbsp cayenne pepper mixed with 1 ½ tbsp sweet smoked paprika
- Combine all the ingredients except the Kashmiri chillies in a medium sized bowl and stir to coat with oil.
- Preheat a wok over medium heat, pour the oiled spices into it and roast, stirring constantly until the whole chillies have blackened slightly, the coconut has turned brown, the sesame, the coriander, the cumin and the fenugreek have turned a reddish brown, the mustard seeds have popped and swollen up and look almost ashy black and the leaves look dry – the whole affair takes about 3 – 4 minutes.
- As soon as this has happened, remove from the wok, put into a plate or a dish and set aside to cool – under no circumstances allow the spices to stay in the wok because they will become bitter.
- Once they’re quite cool, put half of the spices in a spice grinder or blender and grind until they look like ground black pepper (you must let the spices cool properly otherwise they’ll become cakey).
- Now grind in the Kashmiri chillies and stir them in – you can store this in a sealed glass jar, away from humidity for up to six weeks.