Curry Cooking for Beginners
For Flora, who claims never to have cooked a curry, and to not know how...

During my first degree (attempt) after leaving school [BA Cantab (failed)] I made some brilliant lifelong friends - and probably the first one I met was Niel [sic!] who lived in the dorms downstairs from me. His dad was Bengali and his mum English, I ended up visiting his home regularly and learned some solid cooking techniques at the pans of his mum, who I came to know as 'M', and who oddly did all their Indian cooking.

In preparing most of her dishes, or at least the ones she vouchsafed to me, 'M' followed a simple series of steps which I enumerate below, though this did not prevent them from all ending up tasting very differently. A surprising number of Indian recipes stick to this basic script and indeed you can't go terribly wrong by adopting it, no matter what selection of spices or ingredients you choose.

'M' used quite a wide variety of whole seeds and spices, usually including cinnamon (or cassia - a kind of coarse cinnamon) and cardamoms, and was particularly partial to onion seeds, and a Bengali speciality of five mixed seeds called panch puran (also seen as panch phoron, panch phoran, panch poran, panch feran, etc). However, she mostly chose from only four powdered spices - chilli, turmeric, coriander and cumin.
Generally 'M' would fry her onions only until they became softened and glassy, and then add her chopped or grated ginger afterwards, and didn't seem to use much garlic as I recall. Myself I now prefer to fry the ginger first so as to get rid of any hint of harshness, followed by the onions then garlic, lots of garlic (which you really don't want to burn).

Quite often 'M' might also serve a simple side dish consisting of a vegetable sweated in oil flavoured with a few fried spices such as this easy cauliflower, or this saag, or vegetables mixed with a naturally flavoured oil like these carrots.

Boil up some basmati rice and your meal is complete.
  1. Heat a generous amount of oil or ghee until it begins to shimmer.
  2. Fry whole spices until they start to pop and release their aroma.
    Like cinnamon or cassia, cardamom, cloves, dried chillies, mustard seeds, onion seeds, bay leaves, etc.
  3. Fry aromatics (is that the right collective noun?)
    Principally ginger, onion, garlic, fresh chillies, curry leaves
  4. Fry powdered spices.
    Any of chilli, cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, for example. Sweat gently until their harsh smell has cooked off, but don't burn them.
  5. Add the main ingredient(s).
    Chicken, meat, root vegetables, greens, beans - anything goes.
  6. Add liquid (if using).
    Such as stock, water, tomatoes, yoghurt, cream, coconut milk
  7. Simmer until cooked.
To expand on these basics somewhat -

if you want to brown meat or chicken then I would usually do this in the pan immediately after frying the whole spices and then scoop it out to add back later - you're unlikely to get a decent colour if you fry the meat after the onion.

The aromatics can be sliced, chopped, minced or puréed, depending on the final consistency you're aiming for, and you can cook the onion a little or a lot (until caramelised a dark brown) depending on the flavour you need. It's quite common to see ginger, garlic and onion blended together (add a little oil or water if they need lubrication) for frying. Cook gently in a generous quantity of oil until you see some browning and the raw aroma has gone.

Absolutely avoid burning the spices. Fry them gently - it can help to mix the powdered spices with a little water or vinegar to make a paste so they burn less easily. When they're done you should see oil separating from the spices and their harsher scents will have cooked off.
Often I fry the spice paste before adding the onions if I want to cook the onion only lightly.

If you're using tomato purée it's best to fry it a little after the onions and spices to cook off any bitterness.

Salt. Don't forget to add salt. And don't be ashamed of adding salt - it's a crucial nutrient, an important flavour enhancer and food just tastes rubbish if it doesn't have enough salt in it. In fact, the addition of just enough salt can transform what seems like a bland and lifeless dish into one that's satisfying and delicious. I'm seeing a worrying trend in published recipes these days that contain quite obviously insufficient quantities of salt in their list of ingredients. Presumably pandering to some food nazi editor - it's a natural substance that's essential to life, and the evidence that it causes hypertension, heart attacks, aneurysms or kidney damage or any of the other hobgoblins you read of in the nutritionalist press is flimsy, contradictory or simply non-existent.
Get over it.

You might serve the curry dressed with a spoonful of yoghurt, a sprinkling of garam masala, a squeeze of lemon juice, a grating of coconut cream or chopped coriander or mint.

Happy Curry Cooking!

Saag Dal
Lentil curry with spinach
curry side veg vegan
Here's a dish I invented just the other today, following the guidelines above.
Split urad (or urid) dal is sometimes fried as a whole spice (as here) to produce a nutty flavouring. But it can also be cooked in larger amounts like red lentils, though it takes considerably longer to cook properly. When they're whole, the black urad beans can take up to 5 hours to soften properly.

Serves 4

Split the cardamoms open with a knife. Heat a generous amount of oil or ghee in a tall pan and fry the cassia and cardamoms over high heat until they spit and you can smell their fragrance.
Add the fenugreek seeds and teaspoon of urad dal and fry until the fenugreek seeds release their aroma and the dal colours.
Add the grated ginger and fry until it colours and has lost its raw smell.
Mix the salt and powdered spices to a paste with a little water, lower the heat and add to the pan. Fry the paste until the raw flavour has cooked off and the oil begins to separate.
Add the red onion and stir, then the garlic, fenugreek leaves and cauliflower.
After a few minutes throw in the chopped tomatoes, the red lentils and the rest of the urad dal and cover with water. Simmer until the urad dal is cooked - up to an hour.
Stir in the spinach and cook for a few minutes until it collapses down.
Serve with a sprinkling of lemon juice and chopped fresh coriander.
The urad dal is a little bitter in large quantities, so If I make it again I'll probably reduce the urad proportion and increase the red lentils. To be honest the spinach wasn't really that great, but the cauliflower is a nice addition to the dal. I don't seem to have added cauliflower to a dal before - I'd have more of that.
I think a spoonful of yoghurt stirred through at the end might have been better than the lemon juice.