* To say “Indian restaurant” is a bit of a misnomer, despite this cuisine having its roots on the Indian subcontinent. Chicken Tikka Masala – arguably the UK’s favourite dish – was invented by a Bangladeshi chef in 1970s Glasgow, and the Balti came about when the Pakistani-run restaurants of Sparkhill, Birmingham attempted to adapt Kashmiri food to the western palate.
** “Curry” itself is an unsatisfactory term. For Brits curry is a catch-all descriptor for any South Asian dish with a sauce, whereas in that region there is no such concept. Are we using an 18th Century anglicisation of a Tamil word for a spice mix, or a leaf, or a relish?
Pints of Kingfisher, a carousel of dayglo chutneys, steaming face towels, a complimentary brandy and an After Eight, words like sundries and capsicum on the menu. Bhunas, Jalfrezis, Baltis, Kormas. Whether you love or hate the BIR curry house experience (evidently it parted ways with the culinary practices of the subcontinent a long time ago) it is a quintessentially British kind of hedonism, and when I moved permanently from the UK to Mexico in 2007, I wasn’t prepared for how much I would miss it.
I’ve been reading recipe books about South Asian food since Madhur Jaffry’s heydey in the 80s (Kris Dhillon’s The Curry Secret, and Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India are two that have made big impressions), but the life-changing experiences of actually eating the food have all been in the restaurants of the UK. Despite almost three decades spent trying to cook dishes that recreate that restaurant flavour, until relatively recently they had always fallen well short. Nowadays, they just fall a bit short. It may have been the advent of chef tutorials on YouTube that provided a much-needed breakthrough, coupled with the added incentive of not having a single “Indian” restaurant within a 100 mile radius of where I live. I would have to learn to cook decent curries, or learn to live without them.
What follows isn’t a recipe in the strict sense, more a series of steps and components that have been practiced and honed over the years and that have starting yielding pleasing results. Don’t think vindaloo, think beef that works well with extra chilli powder and a vinegary tang. Don’t think Korma, think chicken breast that works well in a mild, creamy and nutty gravy. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that some of the distinctive restaurant flavour comes from using ladlefuls of a pre-made base gravy and pre-cooked and seasoned meat to make dishes in minutes. As this is only practical in a commercial setting, we won’t be using a base gravy.
Makes a big panful
Vegetable oil / ghee See step 1
Whole spices / aromatics See step 1
Onion See step 2
Fresh chillis or a chilli paste / pickle See step 3
Garlic & ginger paste See step 4
Mix of powdered spices (masala) See step 5
Tomato See step 6
Main meat / veg ingredient(s) See step 7
Garam masala See step 9
Chopped coriander See step 10
Step 1: Oil
Heat your oil or mix of oil and ghee (if you have / want the extra flavour and cholesterol of ghee) in a small frying pan and add a scattering of whole spices and aromatics to infuse it with flavour. Add things that can be easily taken out after frying (whole fresh chillis, whole dried chillis, bay leaves, curry leaves, a chunk of ginger, cloves, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, a cinnamon stick, or things that you are happy to leave in (cumin seeds, mustard seeds). Don’t let anything burn to the point where it goes black and bitter.
Step 2: Onion
Depending on how much gravy you want your final curry to have you can use anything from one to four finely chopped large onions. Fry them on a medium heat in plenty of seasoned oil (you can pour off excess oil at the end, but for now you need plenty) in a large heavy-bottomed pan and stir constantly until the water has completely evaporated from the onions and they are a deep golden colour without being burned. This can take a while to do right, but it’s worth it.
Step 3: Chilli
These can be chopped or whole green chillis or a paste like Mr Naga. Amounts depend on how hot you like it, but I’ve always been happier with the results when I’ve fried plenty of chilli, not just to make it hot but to give it that mouthwatering flavour.
Add two to four teaspoons of garlic & ginger paste and cook for 5 – 10 minutes
Blend until smooth for a final gravy with a silkier consistency. Be careful when blending hot stuff, use a cloth over the blender or let it cool first!
Add two or three teaspoons of a good masala (mixed powdered spices) and cook for a couple of minutes. The pro way is to add the different spice powders one by one and in specific orders because they need different cooking times, but to keep this recipe a bit shorter I’m suggested adding them all at once in the form of a masala mix.
Each chef and each dish has signature masalas, and this is really where the alchemy happens. But you can’t go wrong with the following components:
Ground coriander seed and ground cumin seed are pretty much a given and often make up the bulk of a masala.
In lesser quantities (and in descending order): a combination of chilli / paprika, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ground mustard seed, ground fennel seed, ground curry leaf, ground bay leaf.
And in very small quantities if at using all: star anise, fenugreek, asafoetida, kalonji (nigella), mace, black cardamom.
If you are dry roasting your own whole spices and grinding them then well done to you. We cover this process in detail here. If you are using a few teaspoons of a packet masala there’s absolutely no shame it that (just make sure it hasn’t been sitting at the back of the cupboard for months on end). Even an own-brand kitchen cupboard generic “curry powder” will have ten or so of the above-mentioned spices and will give your finished dish something of the aroma and complexity you’re after.
Step 6: Tomato
This can be diced tomatoes or passata. Once added, simmer for about ten minutes. Now is a good time to add salt to taste, but don’t over-salt it, you can always add more at the end. Less (or indeed no) tomatoes will lead to a drier, more savoury gravy and more tomatoes will lead to a tangier and sweeter gravy with a looser consistency.
Step 7: Nice things
Don’t mix more than two of these main ingredients unless the idea is a mix of vegetables, in which case dice the veg small. Also obviously don’t mix different meats or meat and fish in one dish.
Some ideas for main ingredients: Chicken breast, chicken tikka, prawns, lamb tikka, fish fillet, paneer cheese, carrot, hardboiled egg, green pepper, tomato quarters, chickpeas, parboiled potatoes, aubergine pieces / baby aubergines, onion pieces, spinach, parboiled cauliflower pieces, okra, green beans, frozen peas, cashew nuts etc. etc.
Add a cupful of hot water from the kettle, this is to ensure that your dish has a liquid gravy after cooking, if you want a dry dish skip this step. As an alternative to plain water you could add some coconut milk or lentils with their stock, but only if you think those flavours will work well, you don’t want to overdo the complexity.
Simmer uncovered for at least 15 minutes until all ingredients are cooked (especially important if using raw chicken) and the dish has reduced to the desired consistency.
Turn off heat and stir in a teaspoon of warming garam masala. If you feel acidity is lacking add some lime juice, amchoor mango powder or even vinegar (big in Goa apparently). There are some dishes to which Kasuri Methi (dried fenugreek leaf) is added at this stage. It’s a unique flavour and isn’t for everybody but can be lovely depending on what else is in your curry.
If you think a creamy, dairy flavour would benefit your dish (or if you need to temper an excess of chilli) now would be the time to stir in a few spoonfuls of unsweetened yoghurt / cream (make sure you add just one spoonful at a time to avoid curdling), but I wouldn’t do this for any fish or seafood curries, or if your curry is already quite tangy or if you’ve already added “milky” ingredients like coconut or paneer. Finally correct saltiness if it is lacking, or add a pinch of sugar if you think sweetness is lacking, and garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve with… sorry, you know EXACTLY what goes well with this. Just serve with some sundries.