While I am in the process of uploading ‘Everyday Indian Curry’ recipes on the blog, it makes sense to upload an extensive post on what really is a curry, how to make a standard Indian curry, types of curries, the dos and don’ts of making a curry and other nitty gritties of it. I have tried to pen down as much as my mind could think of and recall. As and when I feel that I have missed something, I will update the post accordingly. Feel free to drop in your suggestions and inputs for the same. (The post leans heavily towards north Indian perspective and may differ for other regions)
Well, what really is a curry? There is actually no such word or a thing as ‘curry’ in Indian cooking. We have specific names for a plethora of the so-called curries. Curry is essentially a blanket term, coined by the British, used for Indian dishes that may or may not be vegetarian, may be dry or with gravy and each dish has a combination of spices added to it. The permutation combination may differ but spices are the soul of all Indian curries. The commonly used spices are red chili powder, turmeric, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, coriander powder and garam masala (spice mix). (I recommend reading these two posts to know more about each of these spices to understand them at a deeper level – Spices 1 & Spices 2)
Also, if you are wondering why I have not mentioned curry powder, well there is no such thing as curry powder either in Indian kitchens. The curry powder too is creation of west. Every Indian household uses its own combination of spices or different spice mixes (such as Chaat Masala, Garam Masala, Pav Bhaji Masala, Sambhar Masala to name just a few), to make different variety of curries. Garam Masala (pic below) is one such spice mix that is unique to each region and state; each one having its own mix & ratio of spice blend that is added to curries.
The flavour base of the bhaaji can be onions that are either sliced or chopped besides ginger and garlic or it can be no onions and only garlic or only ginger; basically, these comibinations can vary. For instance, while the Baingan Alu sabzi has onions, garlic and ginger along with tomatoes, the flavor base of the Beans Aloo which I make is based only on garlic along with spices and there is Methi Alu (pic below) and a simple curry of mashed turnips called Shalgam ka Bharta which has only ginger as its flavor base along with spices of course. Some curries have yogurt added, for sourness, while others have tomatoes. Curries in certain regions of India even use raw green mangoes as a base for their curry.
Then, there are certain preparations where neither onion or garlic nor ginger is used. The preparation and taste of such dry curries hinge solely on spices. Isn’t it amazing how there is so much variety and so many permutations combinations just in dry preparations of the Indian curries! Trust me, even the simplest of the curries can taste amazing. This Sookhi Arbi / Stir Fried Taro Roots (pic below) is one such dish which uses only spices for its preparation. Lip smacking good!
Certain curries also make use of nuts such as cashews or almonds to add richness to curries along with cream or milk. Such curries are not frequently made (at least not in my household) and are reserved mostly for special or occasional consumption. There are a few such curry recipes on the blog – Methi Malai Murg, Cream Chicken (pic below), and Methi Makai Matar Malai (Vegetarian). And also this family favorite chicken curry that has a smoky touch which makes it very special. You need to keep in mind that these curries need to have a little thin consistency than you desire since they thicken while they sit (as is evident in the picture below how the cream chicken curry thickened while i was busy shooting it. There is one more picture towards the end of the post in which you can see the right consistency of this chicken curry).
KEY POINTS TO REMEMBER WHEN MAKING CURRY
I almost always make curry from scratch and make fresh curry paste every single time. It takes no more than 15 – 20 minutes (including peeling and chopping). However, feel free to make a huge batch, refrigerate it and relieve yourself from the trouble of chopping and frying the ingredients each time you make a curry. The main ingredients required for making any curry are oil, spices, onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes or yogurt or tamarind and with or without coconut milk, depending on which recipe you intend to follow.
Thanks to the availability of cold pressed oils, I now use the following oils for my cooking – mustard oil, groundnut/ peanut oil, sunflower oil. The mustard oil needs to be smoked to make it odour free for cooking. It adds that punch, a sort of crispness, to curries which other oils lack. It is my favorite for making curries, gravy ones or dry. And I keep switching between mustard and groundnut oil for curries. (For baking I reach out for a neutral oil such as sunflower oil or safflower oil) Coconut oil and sesame oil is the preferred choice for oil in the southern states.
DAL MAKHANI W/ SKILLET NAAN (in the pic above)
Moving on, the oil needs to be medium hot. Reduce the heat before you add whole spices/ whole garam masala to the oil. First go the whole spices into the oil. The idea is to enhance and bring out the flavors of spices by popping them in oil. (You need to ensure that the oil is not too hot else you will end up burning your spices.) Whole spices are always, repeat, always added at the beginning of the curry preparation. Be careful once the spices hit the oil coz many of them splutter in oil; cloves & green cardamoms are especially potent as they have the tendency to burst and also whole red chilies (always add them split).
Next go in the onions. For gravy dishes, whether you are adding sliced, chopped or paste of onion, always ensure that you are stirring it often and you cook the onions on high heat. Cooking them on low heat will make the onions sweat and bring out the sweetness in them and that will ruin your curry. (You need to sweat and sweeten the onions for making onion jam, not curry.) We on the other hand want to caramelize them by browning them. Once they turn brown, reduce the heat and add a few tablespoons of water and then add the ginger and garlic paste. This will ensure that they do not burn or stick to the bottom. Increase the heat and cook them till they turn aromatic. Add ripe tomatoes or yogurt (whichever you intend to use) and add spices. Cook till tomatoes turn soft and mushy and the masala releases oil. The base of your curry is done. You can now add what ever you wish to cook – veggies, legumes, grams or chicken and add the required amount of water as per the recipe and cook them at the recommended heat, till they are done. Wet curries have a significant amount gravy.
(below is the pic of the Cream Chicken with the right consistency of the curry)
(At times, for the chicken curry, I fry sliced onions till they turn brown. Switch off heat and remove excess oil and using little water to make a paste of the brown onions and then use it for making the curry. The curry turns out to be smoother this way)
The flavour base of most dry curries varies from one dish to another (speaking for myself). One rule that I invariably follow while making dry curries is to cook the veggies with either no or very little liquid. This prevents the veggies from going mushy and they hold their shape well. Another tip that I believe can be of help is the addition of tomatoes. Tomatoes when added in the beginning (i.e. before you add veggies) can slow down and lengthen the process of cooking of the veggies. I almost always add the tomatoes (pulped in a grinder) towards the end of the cooking, when the veggies are nearly done. But everyone has their own style of cooking that suits their taste best. What I am implying is that there is no standardized method for making dry curries. It all depends on what and how you like your curry dishes to taste like.
I suggest you visit the RECIPE ARCHIVE to go through the list of curry recipes posted on the blog since I have made mention of only a few of them, here in this post, as a reference point. Going through the recipes will help you understand Indian curries better. I hope you enjoyed reading this post and found it to be of some help. I would love to hear your feedback and I welcome any queries that you may have and which I can possibly answer 🙂
Thanks for visiting and see you soon again with another exciting post!