Mmm, curries. Warm, satisfying, aromatic, and yet intimidating to so many cooks. I know heaps of people with Indian or South East Asian cookbooks who have only cooked a curry once or twice, if at all. When they did, they went and bought fourteen different spices which I guarantee you are now sitting at the bottom of a cupboard gathering dust — each one a meagre teaspoon less in volume — then spent the whole day cooking the thing. For many the end result was probably delicious, but others ended up with tough meat or bitter flavours and it was such a pointless bother they'll never do it again.
That's the problem with cooking by rote, blinding following a recipe without thinking about what you're being asked to and why. It's the reason people attempt Sandra Lee recipes. She's such an easy target, but look how many people covered tempura prawns in a whipped cream and jarred mayonnaise sauce. And put it in their mouths!
Sorry. Just because you've had a hard time making a curry, I'd never accuse you of wanting to make a Sandra Lee tinned pineapple and ketchup pie (link coming eventually, it'll happen). It's just that curries lend themselves to rote cooking because people aren't confident enough with Indian cooking to second guess the recipes. If you've never had a fenugreek seed, how would you know how much to add? How would you know how much to toast it? Unless your Mum was Indian, well, you probably wouldn't know. And that's okay.
But you can know. Curries are basically Aromatics, Spices, and The Rest of It. It's such a simple framework that can be turned into a million different curries by someone who knows how to handle the ingredients. Start here, Meena will show you how. She'll be the Indian Mum you never had. Now here's a curry I made yesterday afternoon to use up some beef and freeze for busy evenings.
Beef & chickpea curry
- 1/2 an onion, diced
- 1.5 tbsp garlic
- 1 tbsp ginger
- 1 green chili
- 1/2 tsp asafoetida (aka hing)
- 1.5 tbsp cumin seeds
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 clove
- 2/5 star anise (basically break off 2 arms)
- 1 cardamon pod, whole
- 1 cinnamon stick
The Rest of It:
- 1/2 cup of canned tomatoes
- 200g chuck beef, in pieces
- 400g can of chickpeas, drained
- 1 tsp honey
- A handful of fresh coriander (aka cilantro)
- Salt, to taste
Below is what it would look like if you arranged the ingredients on my kitchen counter. Yeah, that garlic and ginger is in a jar. You can even get them combined in the same jar, it's great. I have indian relatives who use it, so there. Also it's important to use Italian tomatoes for that authentic Indian taste.
This is what it would look like if you zoomed in on the asafoetida. Asafoetida has a strong aroma and should be used judiciously, but it's really not as stinky as everyone says. The lady on the container thinks it's a-ok!
Did you know that most pubs that serve curry on their menus put all the ingredients together at once in a large stockpot and simmer until the meat is tender? You could do that, but every additional step here will help improve the flavour of the finished product.
First, toast your spices (except the ground turmeric and asafoetida). They all take a different amount of heat, so once you've got a dry pan hot do them in this order: First toast the cumin, coriander seeds, and cardamon pod for about 45 seconds, shaking the pan every now and then to cook evenly. Add the clove and star anise, and cook for a further 30 seconds. Add the fenugreek seeds and toast for 20 seconds. Put the spices (except the cinnamon stick) in a spice grinder (or mortar and pestle) and grind away.
Now your aromatics. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil on a medium heat and add the onion, asafoetida, and cinnamon stick. Cook, stirring, until the onion begins to caramelise. Add the garlic, ginger, and chili and cook for 1 minute, then add the ground spices. Cook this, stirring for about 30 seconds, then add the turmeric. If you cook the turmeric directly for more than about 15 seconds it'll go bitter.
That brings us to the rest of it. Add the tomatoes and simmer until it thickens. If you want you can remove the cinnamon stick (return it after) and blend until smooth, but you don't have to. I did because I got a Bamix for my birthday and now take all my food in soup form. Add the beef (browning it separately first will add flavour), just cover the beef with water, then simmer until tender (about 1.5-2 hours). Finally, season to taste with the salt (and honey if you need it), add the chickpeas and warm through, add the coriander leaves, and you're done.