An errant carrot, a lacklustre leek, some long forgotten frozen prawns wedged in the back of the deep freezer – I’ll make curries with almost anything. However, I do follow a few rules that guarantee they’ll taste delicious even if I’m not following a set recipe.
Here are my tips for making the best curry, as gleaned from Mamma Akbar; a woman who eyeballs everything and measures nothing as standard:
Use a fat with a high smoke point
Curries need to be fried on high heat to cook out the rawness of powdered spices and aromatics like garlic. Choose a generous glug of ghee or a flavourless oil that has a high smoke point, such as corn, sunflower or vegetable, so you can whack up the hob without worrying about triggering the fire alarm. And when I say generous, I mean it (you can always drain off the extra oil at the end).
Aromatics and alliums
The sweetness of caramelised onions forms the base of many curries and informs the character of the masala. Brown your onions, along with any whole spices, until caramelly-golden to give your curry a delicious hue, depth of flavour and fragrance.
Some curries, like this Chicken Karahi, are onion-free and the rendered fat from chicken or meat, spiked with heaps of aromatic garlic and ginger, forms the creamy, spiced ‘gravy’ at the bottom of the pan. Onions aren’t always a must but tomatoes are necessary for creating a flavour-melding jus.
Sequence your spices
As a general rule, add dry whole spices, like cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaves, nigella seeds, cinnamon sticks, cardamom and fenugreek seeds, right at the start of your recipe so they sizzle and pop in the hot oil. Dry powders, like turmeric, chilli powder/flakes, ground coriander, black pepper and salt, are added in the middle and fresh herbs and chillies at the very end once the heat is turned off. The residual heat in the pan takes the edge off the chillies and releases the scent of the green herbs.
Stir fry on very high heat at the start or the end
Once your chicken or meat is cooked through (along with your aromatics and tomatoes) it’s time to ‘bhuna’ your masala, which means to fry it on very high heat to create a sort of concentrated paste. Stir continuously to prevent anything sticking to the bottom of the pan. Once the water evaporates, you’ll be able to see the oil separate from the bubbling, thick, masala and smell the fragrance emanating from the pan. At this point add vegetables, beans or lentils, along with a dash of water before simmering until cooked through.
Alternatively, bhuna your masala before adding meat or vegetables to your pan to make a basic boilerplate spiced sauce. Coat anything from chickpeas, potatoes and peas to chicken thighs, paneer and chana daal in the masala, add water and simmer until tender.
My mum used to snap chillies in half (stalk, seeds and all) with her fingers and toss them into a bubbling curry to add heat and fragrance. I prefer slicing my chillies finely and stirring them through at the end for a spicy crunch. If you don’t want heat, take the seeds out of the chillies first or poke holes in them with a fork to allow some but not all of their fierceness to seep into your masala. To benefit from their fragrance without the heat, keep them whole. Omit them altogether if eye-watering spiciness isn’t your cup of tea.