GUIDE TO MAKING INDIAN CURRY

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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.

Curries can be dry or with gravy. Dry ones are consumed with flatbread or as a side dish with rice and some sauce based/ gravy dish or dal (soupy kind of lentil preparation). The dry curries are called Bhujiya or Bhujia and Bhaaji or Bhaji (do not confuse it with the bhajiya which means fritters). Other north Indian terms used to describe dry preparations is Sookhi or Sookha (which literally translates to dry in Hindi) sabzi (which is generic term in Hindi for any vegetable). Such as Sookhi Arbi or Sookha Chana.

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. 

Certain communities and also those who consume only Sattvic diet (diet which is believed to nourish the soul, enrich and expand one’s consciousness and offers peace of mind), abstain from using onions and garlic and their curries have only ginger as its flavor base along with tomato or yogurt and spices. At times when I run out of tomatoes, I swap them with a few tablespoons of yogurt for making gravy dishes, such as Rajma or Kala Chana (pic below). This trick works better for gravy dishes compared to dry ones.
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!
Coming to wet or gravy-based curries, the words mostly used to refer to them is Tari waleh or Rasse waleh which refers to dishes that have a somewhat thin consistency (somewhat like the Rasse wale Aloo / Potatoes in Tomato Gravy in the pic below). These curries rely mostly on onions, ginger garlic paste and tomatoes besides spices of course. Some regions use paste of yellow mustard to make the gravy. One can add veggies or meat or fish to it. One such curry is this Fish Curry (pic below potato curry) that has yellow mustard paste as its base and for the vegetarians I have a gluten free and vegan curry which is called Besan ke Gatte (Chickpea Flour Dumplings in Mustard Curry) These curries taste best when eaten with rice. White poppy seeds are used in Bengali cuisine for making their dry and wet curries. In case you are interested in poppy seed curry, I have a recipe for Rui Poshto / Poppy Seeds Fish Curry, which I believe can be used as a base for a vegetable curry as well. The addition of Panch Phoran or the Indian five spice mix (comprising fennel seeds, cumin seeds, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds and mustard seeds in equal quantities) to dry or wet curries is also a distinctive feature of Bengali food (also some regions around it)

 

Again, those who abstain from eating onions and garlic, rely on tomato and yogurt as the base for the curry along with ginger and spices. The Hindu Kashmiri dishes lean heavily on yogurt instead of tomato for their curries. And the dry spices they use are predominantly dry gingre powder and fennel seeds. You can check out the Yakhni Pulao and Dhaniwal Korma recipe for the Kashimiri flavors.

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). 

Some curries are unique. They have the core ingredient which happens to be neither any vegetable (although you can add some in the fritters) nor any meat. The chick pea flour is the hero and makes for the base of these curries. It is known famously by the name Kadhi (not curry) and many north Indian states/ communities have their own versions and variations. I had shared my version of Punjabi Kadhi recipe on the blog during my initial years of blogging. And I will soon share the recipe for the spicy and tangy Sindhi Kadhi (pic below) which has loads of veggie goodness in it and can be enjoyed as a curry with rice or as soup on its own (it really is worth trying and takes less effort to make than the punjabi kadhi)
While we are talking about curries, I would like to make a specific mention about the Indian Dal preparations (It is pronounced as daal and not dhal. You can check here for correct pronunciation although the man is saying dal makhani, still it is helpful to know the correct pronunciation). They are mostly referred to as lentil soup but they are not really soup. They form an integral part of our everyday meal whatever may be the season. And they are consumed primarily with rice or flatbread along with some side dish, salad and raita. In the south of the country it is served with Idlis (Steamed Rice & Lentil Cakes) and a variety of Dosa and other dishes. It is an part of our main course and is NOT an appetizer. The dal is first boiled with some salt, red chili powder and turmeric and a tempering is then poured into it. Almost every dal preparation (with some exceptions) have a tempering of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, asafoetida, onion, garlic and ginger along with tomatoes or tamarind. The lentil preparations or Dal can be light, simple and easy such as this Khatti Meethi Dal or they can be rich, creamy and royal like the Dal Makhani. Some dals have vegetables added to them to enhance their taste and elevate their health quotient. You can try this Lauki Chana Dal (pic below) to enjoy your greens with proteins. Gujaratis like a touch of sweetness added to their curries and dals. They use either sugar or jaggery powder. 
A huge array of spices grows in the lap of nature in south India and the peninsular states rely heavily on freshly pressed coconut milk for their curries. Another ingredient that is much loved in their curries is the tamarind. This Tamarind Fish Curry is a fine example of how these two ingredients are clubbed together to create a scrumptious curry. Curry leaves are liberally used to enhance the flavor of the dish along with mustard seeds. Another dish which is a stew (can be made veg or non-veg) called Malabar Vegetable Ishtu (pic below) has a beautiful medley of spices along with curry leaves and coconut milk and a tempering of onions, garlic and ginger. The stew is meant to be relished with Appam (kind of crepes) and makes for an amazing gluten free and vegan meal that is extremely comforting.

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!

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8 Comments

  1. I love Indian curry, but always get intimidated with the long list of ingredients. Hopefully one day I would have enough courage to make an Indian curry from scratch. Everything on this post looks freaking delicious!

    • Thank you Angie. Please don’t let the list of spices in Indian curries intimidate you. Once you give them a go, you will see how simple it really is!

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