Anyone seeking out the “authentic curry experience” is on a fool’s errand. Leaving definition aside, everybody’s got a different idea of what makes for a Perfect Curry. There are so many variations it’s easy to boggle the mind as well as the palate. Even narrowing it down to just dishes from the Indian Sub-Continent, there are almost as many individual cuisines to sample as there are corpses bobbing around in the Ganges.
Ingredients and cooking techniques vary wildly, depending on the region and the ethnic background of the person cooking. The rich and densely reduced sauces of the Punjab have little in common with the rasam (“pepper soup”) and dosas (“savoury pancakes”) of the south. Both of these are as far removed from the Keralan fish mollie as the piquant fish dishes of Bengal, cooked in pungent mustard oil for added bite. It almost goes without saying that the glutinous splurge masquerading as supermarket “curry sauce” is about as authentic and tasty as liquidised Pot Noodle®.
In large Indian cities, the way a dish is prepared, spiced, and cooked, can vary from street-corner to street corner. A dish served one way in a restaurant will be prepared totally differently in another, and different again when it comes from a home kitchen. The recipe and techniques used can depend on whether the cook is from a Moslem, Buddhist, Parsee, Christian or Hindu background. Also on the caste they were brought up in. Some say there’s no such thing as an authentic Indian curry. I prefer to think there are thousands.
I’ve been cooking and eating “Indian” food for the best part of forty years. I even had the dream job of assessing Indian restaurants in London for the Time Out Eating Guide and Eating Awards. I could eat in the capital’s best Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan restaurants at Time Out’s expense. Back then London’s restaurants were going through massive changes. It was starting to dawn on food snobs who ran Michelin Guides and suchlike that there was more to great food than truffade, ragout and galettes. As a result, some of the best chefs in the world descended on London to cook different foods from around the world. Even curry.
I was noshing divine food every day, but generally the best Indian meals I ever had were eaten in the homes of ordinary people. The time, care, and attention of the skilled home cook adds an extra dimension to multi-dimensional spiced food that’s almost impossible to recreate in a commercial kitchen.
Most people have become aware that Britain’s “Indian” restaurants are almost entirely Bangladeshi-owned and run. Only the best of them feature dishes from their home country. The rest are content to serve “curry house” staples, a mish-mash of Sub-Continental dishes that evolved in the UK’s Indian restaurants from the late 1950s onwards. Dishes were reinvented, partly to appeal to more conservative British taste-buds, partly to knock out the need for long cooking times and adapt to the constraints of the restaurant environment. Very often authentic ingredients were unavailable at the time, and so substitutions had to be made.
The results were dishes with names familiar to Indian food lovers, but describing dishes that were as alien as haggis and jambalaya. The likes of prawn vindaloo, chicken tikka masala and lamb korma were streets away from the original dishes whose names they had purloined. Although most diners didn’t know it, they were eating uniquely British meals rather than authentic versions of original Indian dishes. In India, a korma might well contain a handful of chillies but never so much as a splash of cream. Vindaloo was a Portuguese pork dish from Goa rather than a hot curry with potato, which was included simply because “aloo” is Hindi for potato. Good guess, but no coconut (which is reserved for the so-called “Sri Lankan” style).
The best way to sample authentic Indian food is either to travel to the Sub-Continent, or else cook it yourself. Even if you do go down the DIY route, chances are you’ll be following a recipe that’s been adapted for European tastes. Most Indian home cooks work from memory and only measure ingredients very approximately. That’s why I think it’s best to learn authentic techniques, rather than try and master individual recipes.
There’s a definite home cooked taste that comes from using fresh spices and grinding them yourself. Here’s a revealing YouTube clip of British chef Rick Stein watching a woman in India make culinary magic with chillies, garlic and a few other “wet and dry” ingredients:
Quickly plunge the base of the pan into a little cold water, to stop the roasting process, but don’t let the seeds get wet. When the seeds are cool, pour them in to the container of your wet & dry grinder and pulse a few times until ground. You’ll probably have to do this in 2-3 batches. Smell the resulting powder and compare it to the much more muted ready-ground type. I guarantee you’ll never go back.
You can add more of that fresh taste and aroma to every curry you make by mastering the very simple technique of making a fresh paste at home. Here’s one I often make at home, and serve with perfect rice and a simple salad made from chopped onion, tomato and cucumber.
The exact spices and the ingredients of the curry vary, and I might decide to mix and match. Sometimes I make it with peas and potato, other times mixed vegetables, Quorn pieces or prawns. I’m a Pescetarian, but you could easily use chicken, beef or lamb if you want to. Quantities are given as a rough guide only. Feel free to experiment.
The (almost) Perfect Curry
You’ll need:1 fairly large onion (or 2 smaller ones) 3-6 garlic cloves 1-2 cm piece of fresh ginger root chopped into smaller pieces 1 or 2 fresh green chillies (de-seeded if you don’t like it too hot) a handful of black peppercorns. 3-4 for mild, 12-14 for something really flavoursome. 2 bay leaves (Indian bay leaves from a packet, if possible) 1 sprig of curry leaves (optional) fresh or tinned chopped tomatoes
Slice the onion and fry in a little oil over a medium heat. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
While you’re doing that, fill your grinder receptacle with the peeled garlic, ginger, chillies, peppercorns, bay-leaves and curry leaves (without the stalks), or indeed any other curry spices you fancy. Add a dollop of tomato and/or a tiny bit of water to make a paste. Grind down using pulses rather than a long grind.
When the onion is soft and turning golden, add a small amount of cold water to cool it down and pour in the ground cumin and turmeric. Cook over a slow heat until the oil starts to rise. When it does, add the spice paste from the grinder. Stir until the spices cook. The smell will change from “raw” to “curry”, and the oil will rise again.
Add your main ingredient (unless you are using fish or prawns), with more tomatoes and water to cover. Throw in a little salt, and cook until the curry is cooked. You’ll have to rely on testing and experience for knowing when it’s ready. Keep adding water as necessary to maintain the curry consistency. For prawns and fish, you need to cook your sauce, and then add them at the last minute; otherwise they’ll over-cook.
Season to taste and serve hot with rice, salad and maybe a bowl of dahl.
Keep experimenting and mix and match the spices and ingredients to find what works best for you. You’ll be amazed at the fresh taste this method gives the curry, In all probability you will never be able to go back to curry powder or cook-in sauces again. It’s a big moment.
I hope you enjoy my take on the perfect curry.