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The Perfect Curry

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®.

Indian Street Food

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, Bangladeshi, 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.

The Perfect Curry in London, circa 1810?

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.

British Indian Restaurant (BIR) Techniques

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 potato in Hindi and Urdu. Good guess, but no coconut (which is reserved for the so-called “Sri Lankan” style).

Travel India

The best way to sample authentic Indian food is either to travel to the Sub-Continent or else to 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.

Mutton Curry

There’s a definite home-cooked taste that comes from using fresh spices and grinding them yourself. I originally linked to 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. But sadly this was taken down. In it, Rick is very huffy about the quality of electric Indian spice-grinders.

Rick is wrong about the grinders. I’ve had one for some time – admittedly bought online from India – but now you can get them from Amazon. Here’s a link to the one I use:

https://amzn.to/3gAI3DU

Grind Your Own Indian Spices

Having got your grinder, you can improve the taste of your curries 100%. One way to do that is to roast and grind your own cumin and coriander seeds. Simply buy a pack of the whole seeds but check to sell-by date to be at least one year away. Roast them gently in a dry frying pan. Constantly move them around in the pan to roast every seed individually. The aroma will subtly change after a couple of minutes and become nuttier. This means they are done.

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 they are cool, pour them into the container of your wet & dry grinder. Pulse several 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. You’ll never go back.

Add more of that fresh taste and aroma to every curry you make by easily making a fresh paste at home. Here’s one I often make. Serve it with plain live yoghurt (curd) and perfect rice. Add a dollop of pickle and a simple salad made from chopped onion, tomato, and cucumber and you’ll be transported to curry heaven.

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 I might crave boiled eggs (as below), mixed vegetables, Quorn pieces, or prawns. I’m a Pescetarian, but you could easily use chicken, beef or lamb if you absolutely must. Quantities are given as a rough guide only. Feel free to experiment.

My Perfect curry

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

Preparation:

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 the pulse feature, 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 add 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 are tempered. The smell will change from “raw” to “curry”, and the oil will rise again.

Your Perfect Curry is Almost Cooked…

Now add your tomatoes and return the heat to medium. I find half a can (around 225 gms) or a couple of medium fresh tomatoes chopped up is about right. Let the tomatoes break down and become soft and amalgamated into the onion, garlic, ginger, and spice mixture.

Unless you are using fish or prawns or boiled eggs, it’s time to add your main ingredient, with more water to cover, if necessary. 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 stirring from time to time and adding water as necessary to maintain the curry consistency.

For prawns and fish, you need to cook your sauce, and then add the sea-going blighters nearer the end; otherwise, they’ll overcook. Boil your eggs for 5 minutes, then cool, shell, and halve lengthways. Immerse them in the cooked curry sauce for 5-10 minutes to allow the whites to take on the turmeric, curry and tomato colours and lovely flavours.

Season to taste and serve hot with rice, pickle, live plain yoghurt, salad, and maybe a bowl of dahl or vegetable side dishes, as the fancy takes you.

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 and enjoy it as much (and as often) as I do.

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Cooking Perfect Rice – Easily

Cooking perfect rice is a skill that can mark you out from the rest of the herd. Either you can. Or you can’t. There is no middle ground.

Rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed in the world today. Or slightly more if you eat at the Wong Kei restaurant in London’s Soho, where servings are particularly generous.

A long time ago, before even the Sex Pistols were a glint in someone else’s eye, I was taught to cook Indian vegetarian food by a Pakistani chef called Mr Murzer. He was a friendly man from a family of great chefs and a strict teacher. One of his many rules was that I must promise to only ever cook with genuine basmati rice. Grown in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, its grains are long and slender and the flavours and aromas it releases when correctly cooked are unmistakable. The name “basmati” comes from a mixture of the Hindi and Sanskrit words for “fragrance” and “perfume”.

Cooking Curry & Rice in Pakistan

I have not seen Mr Murzer for over thirty years and, as he must have been in his mid-to late-fifties then, I assume he’ll be dead by now. Or, at the very least, incapable of boxing my ears as hard as he used to. His cue was whenever I made s stupid mistake. These heinous crimes included not tempering my spices properly or allowing the yoghurt to curdle.

On that understanding, I can reveal that in the subsequent years I have been known to occasionally summon up the odd risotto with arborio or carnaroli rice, but generally speaking, it’s been basmati all the way.

1st Steps on the Road to Cooking Perfect Rice

Cooking perfect rice is easier than you think. Provided you follow the simple rules. The first thing to be sure of is that the rice you buy is really basmati.

The high cost of producing and ageing genuine basmati grains makes it lucrative for unscrupulous fellows to repackage any old long-grain rubbish as the “prince of rices”. Those garish packets you sometimes find in Indian supermarkets at half the price of all other rice is unlikely to be the genuine article. Although this is not something I ever apply to other products, the only sure way your rice is really basmati is to buy a recognised brand, such as Tilda, Veetee or TRS.

Basmati rice comes in two forms: white and brown (wholegrain). Each of them requires a simple but entirely different cooking process. In both cases, you will need a fairly small pan with a tight-fitting lid. You’ll find that anally-retentive types will almost certainly employ a special rice pan. Mine holds two pints and comes with two small metal handles instead of a single long plastic one. This is so you can stick it in the oven without melting the handle and stinking out the kitchen.

White Basmati vs Brown Basmati

White basmati is milled and polished and is what is served as “plain boiled rice” in most Indian restaurants. You’ll need a handy measure. I use a green plastic half-pint beaker and know that dry rice almost up to the top will provide four generous portions. You simply measure out the amount of dry rice you need.

Cooking perfect rice: brown basmati
A single grain of brown (wholegrain) basmati rice

Then wash it in a sieve under running water to get rid of all the powdered starch. Empty it into the rice pan together with one-and-a-half times the amount (by volume) of fresh, cold water. Bring to the boil, add a pinch of salt, stir quickly, slam on the lid and turn down the heat to its absolute lowest.

After exactly eight minutes, remove your pan from the heat and leave to stand. The longer you leave it, the fluffier the rice will be. Try and manage fifteen minutes. If you can afford to wait longer, stick your unopened pan inside a very low oven.

Do not be tempted to take off the lid before you are ready to serve. In Indian restaurants, they make the rice in huge lidded pans at lunchtimes. One for plain, another with food colourings, oil and spices, for pilau. They leave them in a barely warm oven all afternoon to let the grains separate and the flavours intensify.

Cooking Wholegrain or Brown Basmati

Brown rice contains the whole grain and needs 25 minutes to cook. You don’t have to wash it, but you can if you like. Simply plonk unto your rice pan a cupful of rice and enough boiling water to cover it plus a centimetre or so extra. Boil rapidly for fifteen minutes. During that time you may have to filter off the ‘scum’ (that’s the dark brown powered starch) or top up with hot water from the kettle, as needed.

At the end of fifteen minutes, you need to set your timer for another ten. You’ll ideally have water a tiny way above the grains, if not, add more from the kettle or boil rapidly until what’s in there has evaporated to the correct level. Add a pinch of salt, stir once and plonk on the lid, simmering on the lowest heat for whatever remains of the ten minutes. Leave to stand for at least another ten minutes.

After a while, the amounts of water, rice and salt you use will become second nature and you’ll rarely have to do anything other than plonk on the lid and turn down the heat. At the end of your resting period, you will have perfect Basmati rice.

If not, Mr Murzer will come and box your ears.