I have a problem really.
I literally despise jotting down recipes (for myself or family and friends) for curries.
No curry cuts it. Writing recipes for a curry makes me want to bonk my head silly against the wall next to the computer console, or stick my foot into the toilet bowl, or poke my eyes with a fork. I keep telling myself, “Its a curry for f***’s sake! Why is any recipe necessary at all? Who doesn’t know how to cook curry?!”
The answers are, “not necessary” and “many”, respectively.
Before you read any further, this is going to be one long post. Its going to make me sleepy I’m sure, so do pardon any spelling mistakes that may appear as this goes on.
Many, hordes of people I come across are somehow or the other confused with curries or just plain pissed at them. The biggest reason being that they’re just lazy to go out and carefully get every ingredient on that goes-on-forever list. It scares them. But, they haven’t stopped loving curries or any other form of Indian food, and they never will.
Can curry be that lovable and yet irritatingly painful to cook?
You already know the answer to that one.
Curries, whether North or South Indian, are not tediously complex, they don’t always have to be spicy enough to make your crack burn, you don’t need to follow recipes strictly to produce a good curry, they don’t need a whole era of cooking time and they will always turn out tasty. Unless you forget to season them or manage to burn the whole thing altogether. Really.
My grandmother(s) advised me well, “Good spices maketh a good curry.” Nothing new there. Not exactly in those words, but a direct translation of it in Bengali. And the advise wasn’t even her own considering how hoarse her ancestors went yelling the same piece of wisdom from the rooftops while pots of curry bubbled away in their kitchens below.
Here’s what you need to know to have a pot of it bubbling in your own kitchen:
- Curries need a spice base. Spice-bases can be dry or wet. It can be added to the oil and cooked or used as a marinade. (Scroll below for more on spices.)
- Almost all curries start with oil and aromatics (onions, garlic, ginger, etc.) either whole, chopped or made into a paste.
- Curries are always a tad overcooked. Simmering or bubbling off a third of its water content, makes a curry richer.
Bhetki fillets marinated with turmeric and salt, to be sauteed
Basic components of a simple curry:
The oil- This can be anything really, but sunflower, groundnut or mustard oil works best, for the distinct taste they impart to any Indian dish. Ghee (clarified butter) and plain unsalted butter are also used extensively instead of oil.
The aromatics- which include onions, ginger and garlic, chopped or minced. Ginger or garlic powder is not usually preferred. These are fried in oil to release their aromas, or in some cases can be roasted dry before oil is added.
- red chili powder
- coriander powder
- cinnamon (whole or ground)
- cardamoms (green or black or both, split open)
- dried bay leaves
- cumin (whole or ground)
- peppercorns (whole or ground, black or white)
- mustard seeds
- fenugreek seeds
- nigella seeds
- nutmeg (and mace)
- carom seeds
(There’s an extensive list right here!)
A basic spice mix for fish, poultry or meat, contains turmeric, chilli powder, coriander powder, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, bay leaves, cumin seeds and ground pepper. The rest of the spices can be used in any combination depending on the specific curry to be cooked, or the taste to be achieved.
The spice base along with the onion-garlic-ginger is cooked well in oil. The pieces of fish, poultry, meat or vegetables for that matter, are added and coated well with this mixture before adding water.
* Garam Masala – is a mixture of black and white peppercorns, cumin seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander seeds, star anise, mace and nutmeg, in equal proportions. These are dry-roasted and ground into a powder. Garam masala’s available at any Indian food store or you could easily try making your own. There are a hundred variations according to regional cuisine of course, the details of which I’m not even trying to go into!
The “gravy” – Water makes the curry. The consistency obviously depends on the preference — thickening agents like cornflour or plain all-purpose flour mixed in cold water can be added. A paste made out of shallots and tomatoes combined with a little water may also form the gravy. Coconut milk, heavy cream and yogurt are very frequently used in Indian curries instead of water.
The last step is, of course, seasoning the curry with salt and pepper. Oh, and I have two recipes for you!
The first one is a variation of fish curry with tomato puree with a subtle sweetness.
Fish Curry with Tomatoes
- 6 medium-sized Bhetki fish pieces (or any freshwater fish)
- 4 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 medium-sized onion, pureed
- 2 tomatoes, pureed
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp ginger paste
- 1 tbsp ketchup
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- 1 tsp coriander powder
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp white granulated sugar
- 1 tsp aamchoor (dried mango powder)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped coriander leaves, to garnish
- Marinate the fish in a teaspoon of salt and turmeric powder. Wrap the bowl with clingfilm and cool in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Fry the fish pieces till golden brown, crispy patches appear on the surface, turning them once. Each side would take about 2 minutes. Remove the fish from the skillet and scrape the bottom to dislodge the bits stuck to it. Let them remain in the oil.
- Pour in the rest of the oil and heat. Add the garlic and fry till they start browning.
- Add the onion puree and ginger paste and saute on high heat, till most of the moisture is lost.
- Add red chili powder, coriander powder, garam masala, sugar and aamchoor and stir well till well-combined. Cook for a minute on medium heat.
- Put the the pieces of fish back in the skillet and gently coat them with the onion-spice mixture.
- Turn down the heat to low, pour in the tomato puree and ketchup, along with half a cup of water and stir well.
- Cover and cook for ten minutes. Season according to taste and if necessary, boil off some of the moisture on high heat, to thicken the gravy.
- Serve with steamed white rice or pilaf, garnished with coriander and sprinkle the juice of a lemon on top.
The second curry is that of chicken, and is a classic family number!
- 750gms of chicken, on the bone
- 2 small potatoes, halved
- 2 tbsp of sunflower oil
- 2 medium sized onions, sliced
- 1 tbsp of ginger-garlic paste
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 4 cloves
- 4 green cardamoms, crushed
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp of garam masala
- A pinch of red chili powder (this may vary according to taste)
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- 1 tsp of cornflour, dissolved in cold water (optional)
- Chopped coriander to garnish
- Heat oil in a skillet. Add the sliced onions and saute till they’re soft and golden-brown.
- Add the ginger-garlic paste, bay leaf, cloves and cardamoms, and coat the onion well and cook on medium for a minute.
- Add turmeric powder, chili powder and garam masala and stir well. Cook for another minute. At this point, if the mixture seems dry and sticks a little to the bottom of the skillet, lower the heat and add 2 tablespoons of water.
- Add the potatoes and pieces of chicken. Add 2 cups of water or enough till all the pieces of potatoes and chicken are submerged. Stir well and reduce heat to low.
- Cover and cook till the potatoes are done. Add seasoning of salt and pepper according to taste. Uncover and boil off the water on high heat, to thicken the mixture or optionally stir in a teaspoon of cornflour mixed in cold water.
- Take the curry off the heat, garnish with coriander and serve with steamed white rice or rotis.