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Nine steps to a great Indian curry

August 12, 2009

spices

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)

  1. 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).
  2. Adding a little salt while you are frying your onions will help prevent burning.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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!

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36 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2009 6:16 PM

    This is such an educational post. Thankyou so much for sharing your knowledge! 😀 I can see at least 6 points that I had no idea about!

  2. August 13, 2009 8:02 AM

    Many thanks, Spice – this was really informative! Do you use a food processor to prep the onions, garlic and ginger? And I’m interested in the fact you mix the spices with water – I always thought Indian curries fried their powdered spices dry, whereas the Malaysian curries always made a thick paste first. Darn. Now I feel like making curry today.. 🙂

  3. spiceandmore permalink*
    August 13, 2009 9:50 AM

    Thanks Lorraine – glad you found it useful. It took a fair amount of trial and error for me to learn this myself!
    Figjam, you would end up with a better consistency if you do use a food processor to chop or grind the onion and grind the garlic/ginger and spices together. Some curries like a fish curry really need this fineness in the mix. If I am making a large quantity I definately do this, but if it is just for our family of 4 I simply chop it finely. It is just a lazyness factor in avoiding having one more thing to wash (yes I am that lazy). Some Indian curries do involve dry roasting the spices first (for a totally different taste) but generally the spices tend to be ground along with the garlic, coconut etc into a curry paste. I think frying powdered spices is also a modern day convenience thing. Another modern convenience that many people follow is to create a big jar of ground garlic and ginger and store it in their fridge. I personally hate this. Apart from the aroma in the fridge, I think the taste of garlic in particular really changes to something a tad unpleasant when stored like that for weeks. But I am a bit of a fussy beast when it comes to food!

  4. August 15, 2009 5:12 AM

    Hey!! About the 4th tip it is always nice when you fry your spice powders along with onions on a low flame but making a paste of your powders is also a neat trick to prevent burning…It also quite mimics the concept of grinding your paste, right!!!

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      August 17, 2009 1:37 PM

      Yes that is exactly right – it simulates the ground spice mixture – making your “masala”!

  5. ivorypomegranate permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:00 PM

    I’ve always used a store-bought curry blend, but I’m definitely inspired to try something more authentic and homemade, these tips are wonderful!

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      January 18, 2010 5:30 PM

      Excellet – I am sure you won’t be able to use store bought pastes again! 🙂

  6. Hilary permalink
    January 19, 2010 5:25 AM

    Interesting post. My curries always smell amazing but end up tasting disappointingly bland. I also don’t use much oil and I often wonder if this is the problem. Your tips on spice-frying are great through. I always do this step but now I’m thinking I don’t fry them long enough…?

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      January 19, 2010 11:44 AM

      Hmm…that is interesting. I don’t think using less oil is the culprit – I also use very little oil in my curries. The danger of using too little oil however is that we tend to under cook the spices because of them burning. Try the tip of adding a little water while frying, or some diced tomato for moisture. I add a few tablespoons of water at a time. Adequate frying will bring out the flavour in the spices as well as helping them meld together.
      If you are using powdered spices you may want to try and get some whole spices (which stay fresh for longer) and pound them up…if you have the time and energy ofcourse! Another thing to look at is the balance between the spices you are using. Sometimes too much corriander seed powder for example can make the whole curry taste a bit dull. And my final suggestion would be to add a little bit of lemon juice or a pinch of sugar in towards the end as that can also work to brighten and enhance the flavours. Good luck with it…keep persisting!

  7. August 16, 2012 2:21 PM

    Hi! Thanks so much for this recipe!

    Today I combined it with this: http://www.silverhydra.com/2011/10/meat-slop/
    to make “Desi Bachelor Chow” as seen here:

    http://www.silverhydra.com/2011/10/meat-slop/

    Cheers!

    -D

  8. August 17, 2012 12:26 PM

    ^^should be “(ABC)Desi Bachelor Chow” here: http://mindsore.tumblr.com/post/29528124949/abc-desi-bachelor-chow-v-2

    sorry about that!

  9. April 30, 2013 9:01 AM

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
    now each time a comment is added I get several
    emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

  10. YumYum permalink
    July 17, 2013 10:04 AM

    Stumbled upon your site and this is just what I was looking for. I lived in Fiji for a while and the spice man in the market would tell me pretty much what you have posted here. Thanks for refreshing my memory. With these tips who needs a recipe? Just use what you have around and it will be delicious.

  11. Thai Tropicals permalink
    September 4, 2013 2:08 PM

    Fantastic post which has given me a good jolt back to reality. Laziness saw me slowly but surely reverting back to using curry power for Indian type curries and curry paste for Thai type curries. The curry powders just don’t do it, do they? The Thai curry pastes which you get at every market in Thailand are great, but I never actually knew they are even better if you fry them first.

    Now I’m off to the kitchen to make my own fresh paste. 🙂

  12. Oliver permalink
    September 15, 2013 6:47 AM

    Great tips. Thank you.

  13. Arpan permalink
    November 9, 2013 10:38 PM

    Really nice

  14. January 25, 2014 11:46 PM

    “Nine steps to a great Indian curry | Spice and more” ended up being a terrific read and also I was in fact pretty pleased to come across
    the blog post. Thanks a lot-Fawn

  15. LULU permalink
    February 21, 2014 1:33 AM

    I always make a decent curry. I use store bought curry powders and spices. The problem is that my curry has a a course spice after taste, when I eat he spices feel uncooked in my mouth. Am I using too much spice? How can I remedy this.

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      October 10, 2014 1:59 PM

      Try dry roasting your spices for a few minutes before you use them – this helps ‘freshen’ them up. Then make sure you are ‘cooking’ them for long enough when you are frying them with the onions or tomato (before you add water).

  16. Gee Jazzer permalink
    February 27, 2014 2:55 PM

    Thanks a lot… great tips in lpreventing the onions and spices to burn..just made a fish curry this way and looks and tastes “authentic”…will always be following this simple but effective method.

  17. May 3, 2014 9:10 PM

    Great post. i’ve been cooking curries for a while, however you have shared a couple of things i didn’t know.

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      June 13, 2014 5:20 PM

      Glad I could help! Sometimes the littlest things make the biggest difference to the end product, don’t you think?

  18. kirstie permalink
    May 27, 2014 6:51 AM

    I think my curry went down well, clean plates.
    Thank you

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      June 13, 2014 5:20 PM

      Brilliant – lovely to hear that!

  19. August 6, 2014 2:14 PM

    hey there…nice tips but i do have a question in mind,hope you can answer…I do cook,like mentioned above..But somehow i still see onions more often than the gravy when i’m serving my dish…How can i have more gravy than the cooked onions??

    • Ranee permalink
      October 10, 2014 1:55 PM

      The secret to cooking curry’s is taking it slow. So my best advice is that you are not cooking your onions long enough. Brown them a little also. Add a little water if they start to stick. You wants them to full apart in your dish, and therefor make a nice juicy curry.

      • spiceandmore permalink*
        October 10, 2014 2:02 PM

        Well said Ranee! Yes, make sure you have chopped your onions as finely as you can (and evenly – so they cook evenly). Cook them until they are past the translucent stage. They should not be noticeable at all in the final curry as they should ‘melt’ down.
        If all else fails, a good cheat tip: after you have fried your spices, tomato etc (and before you add liquid), pop the mixture into a food processor or blender and blend the onion and spice mixture = perfectly smooth curry!

  20. October 31, 2014 2:51 AM

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Well written!

    • Jude Mardy permalink
      January 23, 2015 8:21 AM

      Thank you for giving me a roadmap for cooking a great home-made curry. Your basic cooking techniques and tips have inspired me to take my cooking out of the processed food arena. I will let you know how my first attempt goes. Happy new Year, Jude

  21. May 20, 2015 8:36 PM

    Very informative post thanks.x

  22. The Flexible Chef permalink
    February 2, 2016 11:26 PM

    A good tip is to dry roast whole spices and grind them yourself in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar. This method releases the essential oils of the spices and improves the depth of flavour of your curry.

  23. srr permalink
    March 17, 2016 6:15 AM

    Came across your blog through some google searching. Nice tips btw. A lot of recipes that I encounter talk about grinding raw onion and raw garlic. For me the results have not been palatable due to the harshness of the garlic despite cooking the gravy after grinding for a long long time. How do people do this? The recipe typically uses 4-5 garlic. Would like your feedback on this. Thanks

  24. Nonzuzo Goodness Thusi permalink
    June 13, 2016 5:01 AM

    I need a tips about cooking fish carry I want all steps from start until the end.

  25. Lorna Donaldson permalink
    July 27, 2016 1:58 AM

    Spice and More, tastefully written and, like other commentors, some new things learned; you may find it interesting to know that I came upon this when I ‘Googled’: “how does tomato affect the smell and taste of curry?” So you indirectly answered my question and taught me a few things I needed to know. Loads of thanks, L

  26. purehalfstrictlyislamicmatrimony permalink
    December 3, 2016 5:49 AM

    Perfectly correct Siss, loved the points and explanation. Thank you for sharing.

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