Dave on Curry

An introduction to spices and curry from the point of view of a New Zealand European male.

I apologise at the outset for using the word India as cricketers refer to "the subcontinent" - to take in all nationalities, all races and religious groupings in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the immediately surrounding areas. There doesn't seem to be a word like Australasian that takes in the larger region — subcontinental is just too much of a mouthful for this cook.


Section 1: Ingredients

1. The Oil
2. The Meat
3. The Engine Room
4. The Heat
5. The Intensifiers

Section 2: Styles of Curry

1. Balti
2. Bhuna
3. Biryani and Pilau
4. Butter Chicken
5. Dave's Personal Curry
6. Dhansak


Curry is an English word, source debatable, to describe spiced meat and vegetable dishes, usually in a gravy or sauce, designed for European palates. For a more learned wander through the possibilities, check out this link

Short of having lived in India or in close proximity to Indians, we do not and cannot bring to spices the same kind of cultural history - or histories - as they do. Spices taste different to our palate than they do to someone who has them as a daily staple. (Witness those two great "classics" of Indian curry cookery, Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala — both are English dishes devised by (Indian) chefs to sell curry to British restaurant customers.)

You are not preparing an Indian dish, just drawing on the same set of ingredients to satisfy a taste that has grown up in a very different culture.

For these meals, the term "curry" has been standard for years, though no self-respecting Indian chef uses it to describe Indian food. (Nor is he or she likely to use curry powder as an ingredient.)

A good curry takes time: time in hours to prepare, and time in months and years to get to know your spice shelf well and the different textures that are afforded by the different cuts of meat. Time to know when a spice is past its use-by date.

Personally, whether a curry is very hot, hot or just warm, I like it to be smooth. I find many Indian recipes, to my palate, over-spiced, over-intense in flavour and somewhat harsh. My personal curry recipes, therefore, tend to use ghee in preference to oil, and incorporate a quantity of anise, fennel or caraway, which gentle the overall flavour, and I tend to use a little less of spices like cloves, cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg and mace, all of which create a more intense flavour.

This curry site is not comprehensive - more like a diary than an atlas - and there are many spices and flavourings I have not dealt with from the range available to Indian cooks. Information will be added as it comes to hand. In the meantime, for detailed information about spices one of the best web sources I have found is Gernot Katzers Spice Pages

Let me also here put in a plug for http://www.indiacurry.com. This would be one of the very best and most comprehensive sources of information I have found on the internet dealing with Indian food.

Lastly, while I enjoy a good vindaloo, I do not subscribe to the macho notion that my manhood is reflected by the amount of heat I can "stand" in a curry. I don't believe that eating should be an endurance test. (See comments on phall .)

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Section 1 The Ingredients

In thinking about the ingredients of a curry I have found it useful to organise them according to the contribution they make to the finished dish. With a few exceptions, these remain consistent across a wide range of cooking styles.

The Oil

Ghee, Olive Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Mustard Oil, Canola Oil, Soybean Oil

I tend not to use Mustard Oil, Rapeseed Oil, Canola, Soy, and so forth — personal preference and a good many unsettled questions about all of them. Both grapeseed and olive oil have a high tolerance for hot frying temperatures, and grapeseed is about half the price of olive oil. However, ghee (clarified butter) adds a smoothness and richness that is not "greasy", and mostly, in a country where dairy food is easy to come by and cheap, that is what I use.

Here are some notes on mustard oil from the website I mentioned above.

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The Meat

Historically, the lack of widespread refrigeration in India has meant that most meat is consumed very soon after it is slaughtered - often the same day. Consequently it tends to be somewhat tougher than the meat we get from our butcher or supermarket, and requires longer, gentler cooking - which is ideal for absorbing the various flavours of the spices.

If we do this, however, our meat will fall apart. Because of this, I tend to cut my meat into smaller pieces, which provides a greater surface area to absorb the flavour a little more quickly, or I make my curry with somewhat cheaper cuts of meat.

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The Engine Room:

Cumin, Kalonji (Nigella), Coriander, Ginger, Garlic, Fenugreek, Turmeric, Paprika (?) Dhana Jeera

There are some spices which are added by the generous teaspoonful to build the foundation of a curry, and others which are added to provide accent or emphasis, usually in somewhat smaller quantities.

Cumin and coriander are the foundation of my curry. Together with the onions and ghee, these provide the basic body of the sauce.

Cumin can contribute to a harsh flavour if you overdo it, and new curry makers will probably use a little less to begin with. It seems to be moderately addictive, however, and you can find yourself adding it to all kinds of dishes like quiches and pasta for "that little bit extra", and you will find the amounts going into your curry begin to increase as well over time.

Working with a four person curry recipe, I have watched amounts increase from 1/2 a teaspoonful to three or four times that. Indian recipes typically use much more. Making my own favourite curry recipe, I add the whole seed, slightly bruised in a mortar, but different styles may call for the finely ground spice.

Kalonji is a spice that is similar to cumin in some ways - sometimes it is sold as "black cumin" or "kala jeera" which it is not - that is another spice altogether, also known as "royal cumin", and quite hard to come by. Nor is it "onion seed", though that is another name for it. Sometimes you will find it sold as "mangrel"

Kalonji is the seed of a species of nigella. (Gardeners will know a close relative of this plant as "Love in the Mist"). I like the small black seeds floating like kiwifruit seeds in the final sauce. If I use kalonji, I back off on the cumin a little.

Coriander adds a depth to the flavour and a hint of lemon. If you want to emphasise this slightly, grate a SMALL amount of lemon or lime zest - like a quarter teaspoonful - into the curry and watch it go. I normally use from 1 to 2 rounded teaspoonfuls of ground coriander in a 4 person curry. It functions a little like lemon grass in a Thai curry. (You may also see it referred to as Dhaniya Powder.)

Dhana Jeera is a mix of roasted and ground coriander and cumin used in some recipes. The usual proportions are 2 - 4 parts of Coriander to one part of Cumin

Turmeric contributes a bright orange colour, and a slightly earthy flavour. It gets down into the gravy and hides there. Again, 1 to 2 generous teaspoonfuls, generally the lesser amount. (Never add the turmeric to the roasting/frying spices at the beginning. It does not stand intense heat well and becomes bitter if subject to excess heat.)

I buy my ginger as fresh roots from the greengrocer - look for plump, new roots, not old withered and grey looking ones. I keep them in a sealed bag in the freezer and grate what I need. I would normally use about 1 - 2 tablespoons of grated root for a curry, the same grind I use to grate cheese with. I reserve powdered ginger for ginger beer, and for an occasional variation in a chicken curry where its slight sweetness is acceptable and welcome.

Fenugreek smells like curry. It is not easy to find in supermarkets and you may have to go hunting in bulk barns or Indian groceries. (You can often buy the seeds in health shops, for sprouting, but, unless you have a spice mill and even then, they are difficult to grind, being as hard as gravel almost. ) I add up to 3/4 of a teaspoon. More than this and you risk an unpleasant bitterness.

Paprika is not a spice I use a lot of. I find local supplies somewhat mousy in flavour, and with a hint of mildew, even purchased the same day. Some recipes, like balti sauces, do make use of this spice, but on the whole I don't use it very much. I have had some success with my own "paprika", dried in the EZI-DRI, from red capsicums, but it's fiddly and still difficult to keep it as dry as I'd like.

Garlic is usually added a little after the onion. It adds richness and sweetness to a curry, and contributes to thickening. If you add it too soon, while the pan is still very hot, the sugar in the garlic will caramelise and then burn, so wait until the onions have been cooking a little while, or until there is enough sauce in the pan to prevent the temperature from getting too hot. (Add it about the same time as the turmeric.)

Buying garlic can be tricky. Avoid any claws of garlic that feel overly dry or soft, or feel as if they have shrunk some.You can buy cheap imports from Asia, sold in supermarkets in plastic mesh containers at around $3-$6 a kg, but I stopped doing this after a couple of experiences filled the garlic container with masses of small spiders of a type I'd never seen before, that hatched a week or two after I bought it. They left behind a mess of completely unusable and somewhat dried up husks. New Zealand garlic is typically more strongly flavoured than the imported crop.

I formed this conclusion some time back, and at first I wasn't sure whether it was the garlic or me, being now "used to" a flavour that was quite new in the seventies when I first met it. But it seems to be correct. Imported garlic appears to require about 5-6 cloves to achieve the same effect as a couple of good New Zealand grown cloves.

New Zealand garlic can be expensive at $6 - $12 a kg, but the flavour is usually excellent. (I am experimenting with growing my own from a Maketu-sourced variety given me by a friend. It tastes wonderful.

Jumbo garlic (or elephant garlic) is a closely related species and is easy to skin and handle, but has a relatively mild flavour - use it clove for clove as you would ordinary garlic, even though the Jumbo cloves are up to 4 times as large. I'm growing this, now, too.

If you are perpetually in a hurry, garlic paste is expensive but handy. Experiment with different types as my experience suggests at least some brands are prepared from the above-mentioned imported garlic.

Garlic powder has a quite distinct flavour from fresh garlic. I don't like it very much, though you may. Like garlic paste, it can be a handy timesaver. Buy only small quantities of this as it absorbs moisture readily and goes rock hard in the container if left on the shelf for more than a week or two. Store it as you would instant coffee or Milo.

Garlic flakes. These are simply cloves of garlic that have been skinned, sliced and dried. They do not have the vices of garlic powder, and I use them in dishes like meatloaf or rissoles.

Onion See below

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The Heat

Chilli, Mustard, Black Pepper

Chilli is the most obvious source of "heat" in a curry. Here, there is a judgement call to be made. Am I simply after "x" amount of heat, or am I after that particular flavour which members of the capsicum family bring to a dish when you use lots.

If it is just heat, then I use the extra hot chilli powder from the local Indian grocery. About a third of a teaspoon for a curry for four people. If I'm after flavour, then I'll use a chopped green or ripe chilli - usually a manzano, rocoto, or a jalapeno, all with a crisp thick flesh that chops easily, and both easy to grow in Auckland gardens - manzanos, gringo-killers, especially have a long growing season and are available fresh from the bush most of the year. Many recipes call for whole dried chillies, but after biting into some of these unawares in the finished dish, I decided after that to spread the heat more evenly.

(The chilli powder commonly used in Mexico and Southern USA is generally applied by the tablespoon and often contains a significant percentage of blended paprika and oregano. This seems to me to suit the bacon, beans and tomato cuisine of the area admirably, but, for me, the oregano particularly does not sit well with the typical range of Indian spices.)

Mustard Seed, yellow or black, will contribute harshness to the heat if you allow it to, Ideally, it is the first spice, unground, into the hot ghee in the heavy-base pan (closely followed by bruised whole cumin seeds and possibly kalonji). I use about 3/4 to 1 teaspoonful, of mustard seeds, 1 to 2 teaspoons of cumin seed, and up to half a teaspoon of kalonji. Wait until the mustard seeds begin to pop before adding anything besides these three. This will ensure that the mustard flavour is smooth and generates a slight sweetness that you won't get if you use ground mustard or unpopped seeds.

Black Pepper contributes a strong aromatic element as well as heat. For this reason I like to add it a little later, about a half hour into the cooking, so that it has time to incorporate it's flavour, but not so much that the aromatic qualities are lost. For the same reason, freshly ground black pepper is preferable. About a teaspoonful.

Horopito (Pseudowintera colorata) If you're feeling venturesome, and if you live in New Zealand and if you know where to find a specimen of this tree, you can experiment with a whole different kind/flavour of heat by adding a few chopped leaves to a meat dish.

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The Intensifiers

Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Mace, Allspice (Pimento), Cardamom, Cassia, Asafoetida (Hing) Thai Fish sauce

These spices will determine the final taste of the curry, its intensity of flavour, and general smoothness or harshness. For a chicken dish, or young lamb or pork, use less rather than more, or you will lose much of the flavour contributed by the meat. Beef, or older lamb, mutton, goat or pork, will stand a more robust flavour.

Cardamom, or Green Cardamom is a wonderful spice. Indians chew a seed as a mouth freshener. (There has to be a market for a toothpaste with this in it. Just to provide an alternative to mint and teatree flavours, if nothing else.) It is, with cinnamon and nutmeg and clove, wonderful in desserts and pastries. It is an intense flavour, though, and, except in a biryani or pulao, which are a law unto themselves, I rarely use more than half or at most, three quarters of a teaspoon. (You can also buy, more cheaply, from Indian groceries a very close relation called "black cardamom" which can be used instead for meat dishes.)

Cloves I use minimally - a quarter teaspoon for an accent, and ground rather than whole. I do not like the experience of biting down on a whole clove in the finished dish. Allspice much the same. Usually with a lamb or mutton curry. These are the high explosives in the spice department. Overdo these and even your best friend, silent about your bad breath and body odour, will seize the first opportunity to let you know.

Nutmeg is not as explosive, but is still intense, and I use about a quarter to at most a third of a teaspoonful. It is historically used in New Zealand to flavour that milky dessert called junket which us oldies were brought up on along with rice pudding. I use it mainly in combination with blue cheese and a little soy sauce as a coating for stir-fried meat, or as a pasta sauce. For a Wudhi Curry, it is nice used subtly with chicken, or with a young lamb or pork dish.

Cinnamon and mace are also warming spices, mace a little harsher in impact than cinnamon, and leaning towards the nutmeg of which it is the outer shell. A quarter to half a teaspoonful, no more, as a rule, though a vindaloo may call for a more intense experience.

Cassia is also known as Chinese cinnamon, and is in fact a member of the cinnamon family. As with cinnamon, it is the bark that is used, for a slightly more bitter, astringent flavour. It is an ingredient in a widely publicised Balti spice mix, but is more commonly a feature of South East Asian and Chinese cookery.

(It is also one of the ingredients in "Five Spice" powder, which I loathe. For some reason, the smell of this combination rapidly induces nausea in me, and I have responded to its presence in food in damn near homeopathic quantities, when someone tried to convince me it just needed a light hand. By all means try it - you may find that barbecued spare ribs in a Five Spice basting sauce is just the job, but not for this gentleman.)

Asafoetida (Hing) Not an intensifier in the sense of the other spices in this section, but like Thai fish sauce, which smells much the same, the function of asafoetida is to intensify other flavours and help to provide a background richness in the sauce. The "rotten" smell disappears with cooking - though it can be impressive for a moment or two after adding it. It's name in a number of languages translates as "devil's shit".

It is purchased as powder and as solid resin. Powdered asafoetida loses its aroma after some years, but the resin seems to be imperishable. The powdered form and the pure resin are used differently. The resin is very strongly scented and must be used with care; furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to fry the resin briefly in hot oil. The resin dissolves in the hot fat and gets better dispersed in the food. A pea-sized amount is considered a large amount, sufficient to flavour a large pot of food. Powdered asafetida, on the other hand, is less intense and may be added without frying, although then the aroma develops less deeply.

In parts of India where dietary prohibitions rule out onions and garlic, asafoetida is often used instead of these. It also tends to feature more frequently in vegetarian dishes, or those involving pulses.

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The Softeners

Anise, Caraway, Fennel

Typically I would grind/bruise these in the same pestle as the black pepper and add them a little into the cooking. These are invaluable in a fish curry, and tend to smooth the edges of the last group a little. They also provide a richness in the background of the curry. They should not, however, be overdone, or you will have the untoward sensation of simultaneously eating curry and liquorice allsorts. About three quarters of a teaspoonful total for the three of them, no more, in a curry for 4-6 people. Caraway is the harshest of the three, and fennel a little more coarsely aniseedy than anise itself.

Note, here I am not speaking of star anise, which is a flavouring I can personally do without.

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The Thickeners

Tomato, Onion, Coconut Cream, Yoghurt

A properly made curry should never require the addition of flour, cornflour, or other flours traditionally used in Western cookery to thicken stews and casseroles. This function is normally performed by the above group, which will contribute flavour as well as calories.

Now, if you take a wander round the Balti websites, half of them have onion as essential, and the other half insist that any Balti recipe with onion is "inauthentic". Which is as it should be. Some restrict the tomato to one small one, about 50g, while others insist on a whole 400g can of puree and then add tomato paste. Personally, I would recommend you go with your own preference. In most cases, unless you are chef in a specialty restaurant, authenticity per se is of intellectual appeal only.

Both canned tomato and coconut cream have a short life once the can has been opened, even when refrigerated. I use what I need and transfer the remainder to ice cube trays, and when they are frozen, to sealed plastic freezer containers. Then, next time, once the onion in the pan has become transparent, I generally add about 4 ice cubes of coconut cream, and about 5 of tomato paste, double that for tomato puree.

(Coconut Cream is one ingredient where it pays to read the small print on the can. Look at the information about grams of fat per 100g serving. I have seen this vary between 5 and 25, still described as "cream". For a quality ingredient, choose the high fat end, and yes, I know it's bad for you. You can, though, get away with using a little less.)

Onion Typically I use ordinary white onion, or jumbo onions, though you can experiment with different intensities of flavour to get something that suits.

I use generously as a rule - up to 300g, coarsely chopped. Except for Vindaloos, I fry the onion to transparent only, and then add the garlic, tomato, coconut cream, with water as necessary to maintain a sauce consistency. Occasionally, you can experiment with a curry without onion, for a quite different and attractive quality. Part of your learning for yourself is to find out what each ingredient contributes to your tastebuds.

Yoghurt I use occasionally, where a recipe calls for it, or as part of a marinade, but haven't yet had enough experience with this ingredient in curries to use it instinctively. It is very popular in Punjabi cooking. Watch this space. (I like to use it in a naan instead of milk.)

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The Sharpeners

Lemon, Lime, Vinegar, Amchur (Powdered Green Mango), Tomato, Tamarind

Some dishes call for a sour component. Lemon and lime most of you will be aware of, and tend to contribute what I describe as a clean sourness. Amchur has a slight roughness to it, which can move a vindaloo along quite nicely, if used with discretion, and tamarind contributes a highly "fruity" sourness. I use it occasionally, as pulp, or as chutney, in association with sultanas and/or coconut, where the basic dish is just slightly sweet. The chopped apple used in some "curry powder" recipes is another example of the "fruity and sour". You could also experiment with tamarillo for a kiwi rendering of this mood or a bargain bin sauvignon blanc of the kind best used for cleaning cutlery.

Vinegar, I have to confess, is not a favourite of mine, as malt, cider, balsamic, or any of the "years to mature" wine vinegars. If it is called for, I like it to have disappeared from obvious view by the time the food arrives on my plate.

Tomato. Available fresh, canned, and as puree or paste. It's a good idea, if you're planning to use fresh tomatoes, to dunk them in very hot water first for a moment or two and then strip off the skin. You'll note that canned tomatoes are typically skinned and the reason for this is a harshness that the skins can contribute when they are cooked.

As a matter of convenience I tend to use tomato as puree or paste, though I do blend and freeze a lot of fresh tomatoes when the market is flush with them and the price drops to around a dollar a kilo. Tomato paste can also contribute a harshness to the flavour and in my own personal curry recipe I normally balance this with a little coconut cream.

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The Herbs

Methi (Fenugreek Leaves), Kaffir Lime, Curry Leaf, Green Coriander

Green Coriander is an acquired taste. By itself it smells just like squashed green vegetable bug. If you're not keen, use parsley instead, though I have to confess that in association with a rich curry sauce it can add considerably.

Curry Leaf can be obtained from Indian grocery shops around Auckland. Fresh, it contributes a wonderful slightly resiny quality - I use it a lot with stir-fried vegetables. If you leave it in the fridge for a couple of weeks, it will often dry out to crisp, and you can grind it in a coffee grinder dedicated to spices. (It is a difficult flavour to get rid of, so do not use your regular coffee grinder.) It is not so intense as the fresh product, and reduces in volume immensely, but can still add a lot of interest to a stirfry.

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Salt makes meat tough. It also changes slightly the way in which other flavours interact during cooking. For both these reasons, I tend to add it towards the end of cooking, once the dish can be sampled for near-finished taste, and the salt quantity to be added can be adjusted accordingly.

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Section 2 Styles of Curry


Vindaloo was originally a Portuguese dish based on vinegar (vin aigre, or sour wine) and onions. (The "aloo" is not in this case the Indian word for potato, it comes from the same word root that gave us allium, the name of the onion family.) It was brought to Goa by the original Portuguese settlers and adapted by the local population to become the dish we know today.

The essence of a vindaloo is that it is both hot and sour.

The heat is not just a matter of extra chilli - it has a strong element of ground mustard and black pepper as well.

Typically the sourness comes from vinegar, and/or from tamarind, though occasionally amchur - dried green mango powder - is used or lemon or lime.

Personally, I don't much like the flavour of the vinegar to be identifiable in the finished product, so I use it with discretion and make up the sourness with lemon or lime. Amchur (dried and powdered green mango) is also useful, but, again be careful as too much will contribute a harshness as well as a sourness. I use no more than half a teaspoonful of amchur. (You can generally obtain this at a specialty Indian grocery.)

Onions must be cooked until they begin to brown. Transparent is not enough. Burned is too much.

More than just about any other Indian dish, these recipes specify that you start with the whole seeds of the spices used and grind them freshly, whether you use a traditional mortar and pestle, or bung them into a (spice-dedicated) electric coffee grinder. The flavour - and the heat - is intended to arrive in your mouth at full speed ahead.

Next, though not universally so, this is a marinaded curry. The meat needs time to soak up the flavours, not just carry them as a surface veneer. Ideally, set up the marinade the night before.

If you are intending to use ground meat as the basis for this curry, it is worth paying a little bit more to obtain a meat with a lower fat content. Beef and mutton fat in particular do not contribute positively to the final dish.

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Balti Curries

Balti curries originated in Birmingham and are a specialty of the area, though the style has taken off world wide. It is admirably suited to the fastfood restaurant style of last minute assembly of previously prepared ingredients.

Mohammed Ajaib served Birmingham's first balti in 1977. His intention was to create something different, a dish that would give him the edge in Birmingham's fiercely competitive Indian restaurant market.

There are two traditions regarding the name "Balti". One has it that the name of the dish derives from the two handled, cast iron wok in which it is cooked. A "balti" is, it is said, literally, a bucket. The other tradition has it that the origins of the dish can be traced to a province of Kashmir called Baltistan.

If both traditions are correct, it would be a bit like calling a district Bucketshire. I would therefore incline to the belief that at least one of them must be incorrect.

It seems fairly widely accepted that the original Balti chefs were Bangladeshi immigrants in Birmingham. Bangladesh is on the opposite side of the subcontinent from Kashmir and Baltistan. So the Baltistan theory seems a little less likely. However the name of the two handled cast iron wok is more often given as "karahi", not "balti". More information needed. (If you have it, let me know.)

In a balti curry, the meat is first partially cooked in a mix of spice and onions. (Ignore the cries of outrage. Some balti curries do have onion in them. Mine do, for a start.) The meat is set aside and the spice and onions together with tomato and other ingredients are blended to create a quite liquid sauce, which is reduced in the karahi to a thicker consistency and set aside. Finally, a new spice mix with chillies, together with other ingredients is fried in the karahi, the meat is added and finally the sauce for a final high temperature third stage, with the contents being stirred constantly. The fresh spices, herbs and chillis added during the final stages of cooking make it flavoursome and colourful.

Normally it is served with a large naan bread, not with rice; fragments of the bread are dipped in and used to scoop up the balti sauce.

Balti spice mixes vary enormously, and about the only pointers to a characteristic flavour are the paprika and tomatoes that often feature prominently in a Balti sauce.

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Tikka Masala

This is another dish formed for British palates from Indian ingredients. One story has a grumpy diner in a Glasgow restaurant insisting on gravy with his tandoori chicken. Back in the kitchen, the legend goes, the chef grabbed a handy can of Campbell's Tomato Soup and a pinch of spice, and swiftly reduced it to gravy consistency before pouring it over the chicken.

Something like 23 million servings were created in British restaurants last year, and as you can imagine, about the only common features are chicken, spice and gravy, with the chicken usually marinated and partially cooked before combining with the sauce.

The essentials for the marinade are unsweetened plain yoghurt - I like the thick creamy variety - ginger and garlic, lemon juice, (lime juice is nice if you have access to a tree, but otherwise a touch expensive), Vegetable Oil, and a range of spices mainly from the "foundation" group. Marinate the chicken overnight in this mixture. Use a china or acid resistant ceramic bowl, not a metal one.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and brown in a hot pan or under a grill until almost cooked, in the meantime preparing the tomato based sauce for the final cooking. The most difficult part is adding the cream or yoghurt to this sauce at the end of cooking without having it curdle. Bon Appetit.

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Butter Chicken

This is yet another dish created for European diners out of Indian ingredients. Some years back I tasted a superb Butter Chicken at the Kashmir Restaurant in Dominion Road in Auckland, and after that, a series of disappointing and occasionally god-awful examples of the dish at other restaurants. I decided to go in search of the ideal Butter Chicken recipe. This is work in progress.

Years ago, Miranda and I went to Valentine's for an all-you-can-eat seafood lunch which I had seen advertised. Valentine's dealt with gluttons like me by making the seafood sauces very rich - and I fancy it wasn't real cream, either. Two or three dishes in and, unless I was prepared to be sick, that was my lot. Put me off seafood for a few months as well. DON'T make that kind of mistake with the butter chicken - and I have to say that it is by far the most common fault.

So, smooth and silky is the order of the day, with a hint of a chilli bite to sharpen the flavour, enough tomato to give a slight edge to the sauce, but above all, leaving the chicken to define the flavour, and with the almonds coming through subtly at the end to finish the experience of each mouthful. I'm still not certain about these. To be honest, while they did add flavour, they also added texture, as if the entire sauce was based on fine sawdust. If I can figure how to get the almond flavour without the sawdust texture, fine. I'm currently experimenting with a little each of amaretto and cream sherry instead.

It is also important to avoid a final curdle when the yoghurt or cream is added before serving. Easier said. I'm currently experimenting with removing a little of the sauce and blending it with the final yoghurt of cream, then stirring the blended mixture back into the main sauce.

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Biryani and Pulao

These are dishes belonging to the same family as paellas, risottos, and pilafs. In effect, meat is cooked in a flavoured sauce and then combined with partially cooked rice for a final cooking.

It originated in Lucknow, deriving originally from Persian traditions, and since then has migrated extensively. The Persion "birian" means "roasted" or "fried" and referred, I believe, to the practice of frying the rice before the cooking proper.

There is one major difference between the biryani and the pulao. A biryani consists of layers of rice, meat, sauce, rice, meat, sauce, etc. In a pulao, the rice, meat and sauce are stirred together for the final cooking. My own preference is for the pulao style, as I have found that in my still tentative hands, the layered rice often cooks unevenly.

That said, it is difficult to characterise them much further: every town and every district to which they have migrated has modified the dish after its own style, and to confuse matters further, many dishes which are properly pulao are styled biryani by their wannabe originators.

Typically a biryani will incorporate relatively more expensive ingredients such as basmati rice, saffron, and cardamom. It was a dish for elaborate and special occasions.

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Phall (or Phaal)

I came across a reference to this dish ("India's hottest curry") on a website, and subsequent research on a good number of other sites all led back to a single recipe, a relatively undistinguished-looking curry apart from the fact that you keep on adding chilli until you run out. The general ambience around these sites is more than somewhat juvenile, with references to "ringstinger" restaurants, "nuclear" curries, "keeping the bog roll in the fridge", and so forth. These display a degree of anal obsession and fixation quite outside the ambit of this family site. Those who wish to do further research on phallic curries and anal discomfort are free to do so.

If you want a hotter curry, just bear in mind that you can add a bit more chilli to a vindaloo, or a roghan josh, or for that matter a butter chicken recipe — but you may not necessarily improve it.

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Variously described, but the general consensus is that the key to a bhuna curry is to fry the spices in oil for a considerable time, constantly stirring, with minimal water added. The oil absorbs flavour from the spices, and during cooking releases it again to the meat. When the meat is added, it essentially cooks in its own juices. This results in a dry curry with enhanced spice flavours. It is a Punjabi cooking style.

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A rich, yellow curry, featuring turmeric, coconut and almonds, typically, but not necessarily mild in flavour. Sweet vegetables - raisins, peas, kumara, make excellent accompaniments.

The Korma has been around for centuries and as with many of the classic curries was perfected through a combination of Kashmir and Mogul adaptations. In its early days in India Korma was the dish of the courts and a chef had to display excellence in its preparation in order to cook for royalty. Long slow cooking is a feature of most of the best kormas

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Dhansak is a Gujurati dish. It is a spicy hot yet almost sweet and sour curry, which consists of meat or fish combined with a lentil dahl. It is also possible to make a vegetarian version of this dish by using paneer (a kind of compressed cottage cheese) or eggplant or pumpkin/kumara in place of the meat or fish.

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Roghan Josh

From the Punjab, usually a rich lamb dish, the meat marinated overnight in yoghurt and spices, with fennel and a generous use of cardamom and saffron often a feature. Flat breads - naan, parathas, roti - are the main accompaniment, with rice normally saved for special occasions.

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A tandoor is a wood or charcoal burning clay stove, normally used for baking bread such as naan. Typically it provided intense heat for short periods, so that it's products were typically crisp on the outside and moist and tender within.

According to the Wiki article, tandoori chicken originated with a man named Kundan Lal Gujral, who ran a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar before the partition of British India. Trying out new recipes to keep his patrons interested, Gujral tried cooking chicken in the tandoors used by locals until then to cook naan. Gujral was able to cook the tender chickens in these ovens making them succulent inside and crispy outside.

After the partition in 1947, Peshawar became part of Pakistan and Gujral found himself one among many Hindu refugees moving to India. He moved his restaurant to Delhi.

His tandoori chicken so impressed the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, that he made it a regular at official banquets.

Very few people in this country have access to a tandoor, and at best we can seek some kind of workaround. The lowest common denominator is often unfortunately yoghurt-dipped chicken rolled in a handful of spices and some red food colouring and cooked on a hot barbecue or blacktop.

I have little experience with this form of curry, though I recall with some pleasure Jenny Elworthy's tandoori chicken which drew on her time in India as part of the diplomatic corps. My own interests generally lie more with long slow cooking styles.


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Notes on Mustard Oil

"Like all seeds, mustard seeds contain also significant amounts of fatty oil (30%), which is used extensively for cooking in India ....

Mustard oil .... is popular all over Northern India and especially indispensable for the true taste of Bengali cuisine. Bengali cooking uses mustard oil as a cooking medium, thereby achieving a characteristic flavour, particularily since intensive spices are used with moderation in Bengal. Mustard oil produced in Bengal often contains enough isothiocyanates to have a pungent mustard flavour and is often used as a flavouring, e.g., by dribbling the oil over boiled vegetables before serving. ...

"[M]ustard oil contains glycerides of erucic acid, which is considered harmful to human health; furthermore, traces of free isothiocyanates may be found in mustard oil. Therefore,... mustard oil cannot be recommended without qualification for cooking purposes......

However, because of the erucic acid and maybe also the isothiocyanates, mustard oil [may not] be traded as a foodstuff in most western countries, including the EU and the USA. ...

To circumvent the paternalistic laws, Indian food shops will usually offer it labeled For external use only, which [need not] be taken seriously, although mustard oil does have cosmetic use in India.

Note that in India, mustard oil is usually heated very strongly, up to the smoking point, and then allowed to cool down to regular cooking temperature before the cooking starts. Although I don't know for sure, this heating procedure might be useful for detoxification (or it might just improve the taste); in any case, it's a good idea to follow that praxis."

Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages

Manzano and Rocoto Chillis

Known also as gringo killers, these chillis are the same species. The manzano is shaped like an apple, the rocoto more like a tamarillo, oval in shape. The key to recognising these when they are fresh is their seed, which is black, not white like the rest of the capsicum family. They are considerably hotter than a jalapeno and should be handled carefully. You should wash your hands carefully and thoroughly with soap after handling them, before you touch eyes, nose, ears or before going to the toilet.









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Spreads, Dips, Entrees, and Dressings



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