A good curry needs the right base. The principles below may vary depending on the recipe you are cooking, but the key points are the same.
- Meat and Poultry : the base is made with slowly cooked onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and chilli. Knowing how to do this properly will mean you are half way there to creating amazing Indian food.
- Fish and Vegetables : the base is made much quicker. The onions and tomatoes are not cooked for so long. The base does not need to be as rich in flavour as it will overpower the delicate flavour of the fish or veggies.
The Base for Meat and Poultry
Click here to watch my video about making a great base for meat and poultry curries.
Stage 1 - Onions
How to cook the onions to use straight away or in the next 24 hrs....
- Cut the onions as finely as possible. This is best done in a food processor.
- Add the chopped onions to a cold, dry pan and turn on the heat.
- Cook the onions for 5 minutes on a medium low heat stirring often to prevent them from sticking. This allows some of the excess water to evaporate making the caramelisation of the onions easier.
- After 5 minutes, add a little vegetable oil and cook the onions on a low to medium heat for 15-20 minutes until they caramelise and turn lightly golden brown. The onions at this stage become really sweet and almost buttery. Don't rush this stage, if you cook them too quickly they will burn rather than caramelised which can result in a bitter taste.
For LARGE batches of onions that you plan to store for the week or freeze
- Cut the onions as finely as possible. I typically to do this in a food processor.
- Add the cut onions to a cold, dry pan and turn on the heat.
- Cook the onions for 5 minutes on a medium low heat stirring occasionally. This allows some of the excess water to evaporate making the caramelisation of the onions easier.
- Add a dash of white wine vinegar (1 tbsp for around 10 medium onions) and a good pinch of salt (1 tsp). Stir well. This helps preserve the onions if you are keeping them for a week in the fridge or in the freezer.
- After 5 minutes, add a little vegetable oil and cook the onions on a low to medium heat for 15-20 minutes until they caramelise. The onions at this stage become really sweet and almost buttery. Don't rush this stage, if you cook them too quickly they will burn rather than caramelised which can result in a bitter taste.
- Remove the onions from the heat and allow to cool.
- Place them in a container with a lid or in several small containers (as this makes it easier if freezing) and pop them in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to use them.
- You can then simply add the chilled or frozen onions to a pan, warm them through and pick up from where you left off in the recipe.
Stage 2 - Tomatoes
Recipes can contain either tinned or fresh tomatoes. Either way the most important thing is to again cook them slowly to remove any bitterness from them and allow their flavour to intensify as the water is removed.
There are 2 ways that you can cook your tomatoes.
If you are cooking your curry straight away
- Add your tomatoes to the pan with your onions, with any spices that the recipe requires at this stage.
- Cook the tomatoes slowly with the onions on a medium too low heat. They will become darker in colour as they cook.
- This usually takes around 10-15 minutes. You will know when they are cooked enough it will turn into a paste and the oil will split out and you will notice a little oil appear around the edges of the paste.
For LARGE batches of cooked tomatoes
I like to slowly cook large batches of tomatoes and then place them in the fridge or freezer which then helps cut cooking time later on in the week. To do this.....
- Add a little vegetable oil to pan on a low heat.
- Add the tomatoes, either fresh or tinned.
- Cook on a low to medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- Cook for about 20 minutes until thick and paste like (it might be much longer if you are cooking a huge quantity).
- Once you have a paste, remove them from the heat and allow to cool.
- Spoon into a container if you are going to use them that week or, if freezing, place portions of the paste into containers and freeze for a later date.
- You can remove a portion of tomatoes from the freezer and cook straight away. When you add them to the onions, cook for about 5 minutes and allow the oil to split from them.
Splitting of the oil
An important step when making curries is cooking the base or sauce long enough for the oil to split from the base. If you are cooking a healthy curry with only a little oil this will still happen and a slight film of oil will appear around the pan or on top of the sauce. Splitting shows that everything is cooked enough to release the oil, giving you a rich flavour. People often think this is a mistake but it’s a sign of a good curry in Indian and Thai cooking.
For Fish and Veggie curries
The cooking process for fish and veggie curries is a lot quicker. The onions do not have to be cut so small and they can simply be sliced. You need to cook both the onions and tomatoes to take away any raw flavour but they do not need to be caramelised as this will over power the delicate flavours.
Other Ingredients in a good base
Ginger is used many different curries, so I make large batches of “ginger pulp” and freeze it ready for curry in a hurry. Click here to find out more.
The best way to peel ginger is to use a teaspoon which enables you to get into all the nooks and crannies. Click here to see how it is done.
You can finely grate the ginger or simply put it in a small blender and blend until smooth. You don't need to add any water.
The ginger pulp will last for about a week in the fridge. Alternatively, you can spoon it into an ice cube tray and freeze. When you need it, simply pop out a cube and use it without even defrosting.
Garlic pulp, like ginger, can be made by peeling and then finely grating or blending it in a food processor. It can be stored the same way as ginger and refrigerated for a week. Click here to find out more about preparing garlic pulp.
Click here to see how I like to work with chillies.
You can’t really tell how hot a chilli is going to be until you eat it. The heat can vary considerably from chilli to chilli, even within the same variety. Once you have put too much chopped chilli in to a dish, you can’t get it out again and your curry (or your mouth) is ruined.
The seeds are not the hottest part of the chilli - it’s a myth. The heat is actually within the chilli membrane closest to the seeds. If you want to remove some heat you need to remove both the seeds and the layer of membrane on the flesh closest to the seeds.
Tip: I find the best way to control the heat in a curry is to simply pierce the chilli in several places with a skewer or fork. By piercing the chilli it gradually releases the heat you want. You can then easily remove it when the dish has reached the required heat.
Sweet - Jaggery
Click here to watch my video on jaggery.
Indian food often has both sweet and sour notes. Sweetness can come from the slow cooking of onions but a special type of sugar called jaggery is often used. Jaggery is a product of sugarcane and the toddy palm tree.
The cut and cleaned sugarcane is crushed and the cane juice extracted. It is then boiled, then lime (slaked lime not the green citrus fruit) is added. This causes all the impurities to rise to the top of the juice in a froth, which can then be skimmed off and discarded. Finally as it boils the juice thickens. It is ready once it has been reduced to about one third of its original volume .
It now has a golden colour and is stirred until the right consistency is reached. It is then poured into shallow flat pans to solidify and shape. The quality of jaggery is judged by its colour. Brown means it has impurities and golden yellow indicates a good level of purity.
Note: If you can’t get hold of jaggery you can simply use dark brown sugar.
Whenever sweetness is added to a dish, a sour is also added to balance it. Sourness can come from many different ingredients in Indian cooking.
Click here learn more about souring agents.
- Fresh lemon or lime juice and zest.
- Mango powder - made from the dried skin of the green mango or green mango flesh, it has a sour and fruity flavour.
- Tamarind - has a sweet and sour flavour. The tamarind tree produces a bean like pod which contain seeds that are surrounded by a fibrous pulp. As the seeds mature the fibrous pulp naturally dehydrates and turns into a thick paste. This is then often pressed together to form a block or “cake”. This can be soaked in water to create a looser paste. You can usually find the ready made, looser paste in jars in most supermarkets. Click here to see a video on how to make your own tamarind pulp from the block/ cake.
- Mangosteen - which is perfect for lentil curries, you just pop them in an allow their flavour to infuse
- Dried pomegranate seeds.