There are so many preconceptions and misconceptions about making a curry that I'd like to have a go at dispelling myths and demystifying mysteries.
A lot of people find the sheer number of spices rather intimidating. If you look at the picture of the masala dubba at the top of the page, there are indeed rather a lot. However, you can order these online in packets for considerably less than half the cost of a supermarket jar.
- Packet of turmeric from a spice supplier : £2.95 in a 400g packet (£7.38 per kg)
- Glass jar from supermarket : £0.85 for 45g (£19 per kg).
Decant your spices from the packet into a pot in your masala dubba. Your dubba should have a reasonably airtight lid. This not only keeps them fresher for longer but it also stops the spice smells inside it.
You store your opened spice packets in an airtight container. You can use a large ziploc bag for this and squeeze several packets into one bag.
The idea of toasting spices is to tease out the volatile oils. Many people overheat their spices to the point where they have tortured the volatile oils rather than teased them. I warm my spices in a preheated pan on a low heat for 1 minute.
The only spices that you should really store in a ground or powdered form are turmeric and chilli flakes. Powdered or ground spices lose their flavours quite quickly. So ideally you should [grind on demand in a pestle and mortar].
Key and warming spices
I break spices into these 2 categories.
- Key spices - these hold their flavour for a long time once cooked. As a result, they are used early on in the cooking process. My key spices are Indian bay leaf, cassia bark, black peppercorns, brown mustard seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, chilli flakes, turmeric. More about key spices.
- Warming spices - many of these lose their flavour within 20 or 30 minutes after cooking and so are applied towards the end of the cooking process. These are typically cardamom (green and black), cloves, fenugreek leaves, fennel seeds, Kashmiri chillis, mango powder and star anise. More about warming spices.
Ginger and garlic
These are very important ingredients in almost every Indian dish. Many Indian cooks will batch prepare both of these ingredients and freeze them in ice cube trays. You can simply drop them in whenever you need them. Ginger and garlic can both be grated finely or blended when prepared in quantity,
A great curry manages to achieve not only a balance of spices but also a mixture of taste types (sweet, sour, bitter, salty) that are also balanced. The idea is that your spices and tastes are layered and balanced to achieve 'curry harmony'.
- Sweet - sweetness comes primarily from the caramelisation of onions. I describe this crucial aspect in detail in the curry base page. Meat curries require more caramelisation and fish and vegetable curries require less. But I also use Jaggery to add a touch of sweetness along with a caramel note. Lemon should be avoided as a souring agent as it develops a chemical taste the longer it is cooked.
- Sour - there are three souring agents. Tamarind pulp/paste, green mango powder and pomegranate seeds. I discuss these in this video .
The key takeaways for the base are
- Onions should be chopped or blended to a small size.
- Slowly cook off the moisture from your onions before you add oil and start to caramelise.
- Caramelise your onions slowly and do not allow them to burn.
- Add tomatoes once caramelised and then cook off the liquid slowly.
- At the end, you will end up with a paste , which is your base.
You'll be surprised how little base you need for a 4 person curry.
Meat and poultry vs. fish and vegetable
- Meat and poultry - you need more base and you want more caramelisation of the onions.
- Fish and vegetable - the ingredients are more delicate and so you need a lighter touch with both the base and the spices.
Batch cooking and preparation
If you plan to eat curry often then I can recommend doing some batch preparation. Everything listed below can be stored in the fridge for a week or the freezer for 6 months.
If you watch my videos, you'll notice that I use a simple preservation technique which doesn't impact at all on the final taste of your dish. I just add a sprinkle of salt and a dash of vinegar to my chopped ingredients.
Pulping ginger and garlic
I use a blender to prepare my batches of garlic and ginger. I then spoon everything into ice cube trays to freeze. What I plan to use in the next 7 days I put in a small container topped with oil and store it in the fridge.
Onions and base
You can also store batches of onions and base in any of the following ways.
- Caramelised onions - add a little salt and a dash of vinegar to preserve.
- Fully prepared base - this is the ultimate time saver.