This is longer than normal blog posting, but I thought it was important to explain a little more about the essentials of curry making. I’ve taken the following information from numerous sources together with a dash of my own experience. It’s by no means exhaustive – just some basic guidelines you should follow to ensure you get the most out of making and – more importantly – eating curries!
So, here goes…
You can have curry without spice…and most Indian cooks will tell you that the two most important spices are cumin and coriander seeds. Also important are Fenugreek, Ginger, Garlic, Turmeric and Cardamom, so make sure your store cupboard contains these at the very least.
However, be warned – older, stale spice powder adds nothing but grit to your finished dish, so use spices powders fresh or, better still, grind your own from whole seeds.
Another essential ingredient – it’s what gives the curry it’s heat and can be used in whole fresh form, chilli powder, whole or crushed dried chillies or as chilli sauce or paste. As well as heat, chillies can add some subtle dimensions of flavour which can be dramatically different from one chilli to the next. Habanero and Scotch bonnet chillies have a beautiful buttery, oaky and vanilla tones but are so hot that most people can’t really take them. Most Indian Restaurants use predominantly Long thin green cayenne or finger chillies. They have a good taste and high heat level and can be added chopped, sliced or whole as required. The heat level of fresh chillies is reduced somewhat with the length of cooking so add them earlier if you like it milder and later if you prefer it hotter. And here’s a useful tip if you’re nervous about adding too much…always add chilli a little at a time, you can always add some more if needed but you can’t take it out once you have overdone it.
Onions, ginger and garlic – these are the three ingredients no curry is truly complete without. Onions are nearly always finely chopped and sauteed until translucent or brown as the first or second step in any curry. Ginger is usually grated and garlic can be sliced or crushed or both in the same dish.
Indian dishes don’t use many herbs – the most common are fresh coriander leaf, usually added towards the end of cooking and most often as a garnish, and fresh basil is sometimes used similarly.
Don’t assume that because curry spices are strongly flavoured that you don’t need salt – you do!
Oil and Fat
Oil is essential in all curries as the medium which carries the spices. Without oil the spices are harsher and gritty with much less flavour and aroma. Indian restaurants tend to use Ghee, which is a clarified butter, but Olive oil, Sunflower or Groundnut oil can be used instead.