Nine steps to a great Indian curry
With just these few ingredients you can make most Indian curries and other food. Just by varying the proportion of each of these ingredients you can produce dramatically different dishes. If you don’t know them already, from the top row left to right they are:
Ginger – Garlic – Onion
Cumin – Coriander seeds
Turmeric powder – Chilli powder – whole dried chillies
When I first moved out of home while at University, I was a pretty terrible cook. My mother is a fantastic cook and despite using her recipes and with coaching over the phone, I produced some very poor results. My curries were watery with floaty bits in them and I remember furiously boiling them on high heat in an effort to get them to thicken up to a nice creamy consistency. And then I worked out that what I was missing in my cooking was technique, not ingredients. So here are my top ten tips for making a great curry.
Nine steps to a great curry
(listed in order of process, rather than order of importance)
- If you are using onion, try and dice it finely. This will help create the base of your curry and will also help combine the flavours in your spices. The degree to which you fry your onion will affect the taste. At the very least it must get to the translucent and soft stage. For more robust flavours, fry it until it is golden (but not burnt).
- Adding a little salt while you are frying your onions will help prevent burning.
- Once your onions reach the right stage, add your ginger and garlic that are also finely minced or ground to a paste. Fry these for only a few minutes. Burnt garlic is bitter and unpleasant.
- If you are using dry spice powders, mix them together with a little water and allow to sit for a few minutes while your onion is frying. This slight re-hydration and extra moisture can help prevent your spices from burning. Dry powders are very prone to burning so you will really need to add water or tomatoes while you are frying your spice mixture.
- Spices need to be cooked. This would be the most important tip of all I think and was the primary cause for my pathetic curries in the early days. You need to fry your spices in the onion and garlic/ginger mixture for a good five to ten minutes (or more). The aroma of the spices will change and let you know when they are cooked. Another sign that you have cooked your spices enough is when the oil you have used in the frying starts to separate from the mixture. Now I don’t use a lot of oil in my cooking so this oil separation thing is less obvious for me and I rely more on the smell of the cooked spices. Don’t be afraid of cooking your spices well – you cannot do it too much, but it will be very obvious if you don’t do it enough. If you feel like your spice mix is looking dry and starting to burn, you can add more oil, or add some water or chopped tomatoes. If you are adding water (which is what I do), just keep cooking and stirring until the water evaporates and the oil starts to separate. Add the water a tablespoon at a time as you are trying to fry, not boil, your spices. If you do this step well, your curries will be lovely and thick without the need to add any thickening agents like cream, etc.
- Fry other ingredients needing substantial cooking times in this spice mixture. For example if you are cooking a meat curry, you could add the meat now and fry it in this spice mix for five to ten minutes. This helps seal the meat slightly and retain its moisture.
- Add water (or coconut milk) to create the curry…add a little at a time until you get to the right level of thickness you are after. It is important that you cook this on a moderate to low heat. Don’t think that high heat is going to help deliver a thicker curry…it will just ruin the rest of your ingredients and encourage separation of the liquid from the solids.
- When your curry is cooked, you should see a little film of oil on the surface. At this stage add in vegetables or other ingredients that need a very short cooking time.
- If all of the above fails and you end up with a watery mess…don’t panic…you can still rescue it. Here are some different rescue strategies:
- Add some natural (unsweetened) yogurt. A couple of tablespoons should do the trick. Keep your curry on a very low heat if you use yogurt so that it does not split. Do not cook for too long after you add the yogurt – just a few minutes should be enough.
- Drain out some of the liquid into another pot and reduce that separately on moderate heat. Add the reduced liquid back into the main pot. This approach will protect your other ingredients from over cooking and will also keep the flavour ‘true’ (as opposed to adding yogurt which can change the flavour of the curry).
- Tomato puree is another good thickening agent – if you are already using tomatoes in your curry then this might be a better option than yogurt. Add sparingly though as you do not want it to dominate the taste. And remember to allow the curry to cook for a further 10 to 15 minutes after you add the tomato so that the flavours can meld.
- If you are making a coconut based curry, you can add more coconut cream or some coconut cream powder to thicken your curry further. You can buy coconut cream powder in most Asian grocery shops…or you could even grind some dessicated coconut to a fine powder and add that in.
Have fun with it and enjoy the process!