This article title is deliberately disingenuous, not just because of the liberal use of Cockney rhyming slang, but as everybody knows, great food is a very subjective matter. A dish that would delight your average carnivore may leave a vegan or a generation millennium individual as cold as a well-frozen gazpacho. So be it. I make no apologies for luring readers with clickbait, and if the thought of curried meat disgusts you, just think of the hygiene conditions in some of the less illustrious takeaway establishments.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to cook popular takeaway Indian and Chinese dishes to the same standard or higher at home, provided you know the secrets of the trade. I won’t cover Chinese here, but it does share a common theme with “Indian” food. The reason for the quotations is that food that passes for Indian is frequently cooked by Pakistanis, and there are some very subtle and not so subtle differences in cooking methods, recipes and preparation. The common theme between Indian and Chinese however, is heat. While a domestic cooker (even with a wok ring) will come nowhere near the temperatures used in a commercial takeaway restaurant, it is still possible to prepare a dish to extremely high standards. I will come to that topic later, but first some pertinent questions.
What sort of curry do you want?
I’m not talking about the core ingredients, meat, fish or vegetables here, but more accurately, what style of curry. A traditional Indian curry is a one-pot affair, with everything cooked either on the stovetop or occasionally in a heavy casserole dish in the oven. A takeaway or British Indian Restaurant (BIR) curry, on the other hand, uses pre-prepared ingredients and sauces, with the spices flash-fried in a generous amount of oil, and the sauces and other ingredients just reheated. This facilitates an extensive menu, while allowing rapid service to the impatient, and frequently drunken, customer. The cooking times of a classic Indian curry may be many hours, depending on the meat used, and the dish itself is frequently less oily and therefore less fattening. However, it must be noted that extra oil was frequently added traditionally, especially as a caloric supplement, for those undertaking heavy manual labour. Generally, vegetable oil is used, but mustard, rapeseed or coconut also make an appearance. Never use olive oil in a curry. (Ed. Ghee?)
How much time do you have?
A classic Indian curry is less labour intensive than your BIR variety. Starting from scratch, a BIR curry can take 2-3 hours (bare minimum) to prepare if you are unaided, excluding cooking time. This is the reason why there is such an outcry over unskilled labour in Indian takeaways, they generally have one fry chef, and someone who is skilled in bread making and using the Tandoori ovens. Other than that, the meat, vegetables and other preparation work is time-consuming and left for the unskilled. If you really want to roll the boat out, with numerous sides and different varieties of curries for guests, count on spending all day in the kitchen.
What cooking utensils do you have?
For a BIR curry you will need a large stockpot or preferably a pressure cooker and a heavy wok or cast iron frying pan. While you can use non-stick, the high temperatures involved really lend themselves more to steel or iron, and as cooking geeks will know, this allows the development of a fond or “burnt bits” as they are more commonly known. This adds to the flavour, and many BIR fans use an aluminium chefs pan for this reason alone. Aluminium, when used with a gas hob, allows for excellent temperature control, something that is essential at the crucial, initial fry stage. Conversely, a non-stick pan with an electric cooker (especially the old radiant ring type), will produce poorer results and will require considerably more skill to master. You will also need a stick blender or a food processor to blend the sauce or gravy, and an old coffee grinder for blitzing spices. A mini electric chopper or food processor is an essential addition for making garlic and ginger paste. An classic curry is just as happy in a non-stick wok as in an expensive, gourmet, casserole. Provided you don’t burn anything that is. As to ingredients preparation, a sharp knife and a chopping board etc. is essential for both genres.
Are you a hoarder?
This probably should come under the secrets section, but in my opinion, as it is the most important factor (apart from heat) in making a phenomenal curry, that I have decided to give it its own section. Yes, you can use that jar of cumin that has congealed into a solid lump in the jar. No, your curry will not blow you away in any sense of the word. Yes, you can use use frozen ingredients. No, the texture will be different. Years of slaving over a hot stove has taught the author that fresh is best. Yes, it is more effort, yes, that tube of garlic will save you 5 minutes, but all these shortcuts add up to reduce the quality the final dish. The only exception to this rule is marinating meat. Throw some raw meat, spices, oil, yoghurt, lemon juice or vinegar in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours and you have an excellent base ingredient for either a tandoori or a curry. If you do decide to use the leftover sauce as an ingredient, ensure it is brought to boiling point to kill any salmonella etc. and served piping hot or Ghandi’s revenge will pursue you with a vengeance. An exception to the exception, do not store raw garlic in oil, as there is a risk of botulism. Yes, I know it is frequently done, but I won’t go into details here.
Do you enjoy washing/cleaning up?
If no, BIR is not for you. In a heavy session, not only will you have considerable spatter from frying on your cooker and walls, but I once succeeded in stacking sufficient dirty washing up in the sink that it almost reached the ceiling (excluding guest’s serving plates). Juggling 5 pans simultaneously on a blazing hot stove, with tandoori chicken under the grill and hot sauce in an electric pressure cooker, doesn’t facilitate stacking a dishwasher. After cooking a large pot of base, your house will smell like a takeaway as well.
Where are the recipes?
None here, I’m afraid, this is a technique only article. I will reference a few good resources at the end though. You weren’t expecting me to include my award-winning recipe  for Chicken Tikka Masala, were you?
The trade secrets
As these apply to BIR, CI (Classic Indian) or both.
1. Fresh garlic paste (Both)
This, very much like spices, is a key, yet temperamental ingredient. It is essential with both garlic and spices that the full flavour is efficiently extracted into the oil, but at the same time neither is burnt as the dish will be ruined. In the same vein that one cannot have too much bacon, you cannot have too much garlic paste. This might tempt you into buying the pre-prepared stuff, but resist. Store bought garlic puree has additives than can add a very bitter taste. Depending on the number and type of dishes you are preparing, expect to go through up to a dozen small Chinese bulbs of the stuff, the vast majority of which will go, peeled but de-shooted and unchopped, into a large pot of “base curry sauce”. For individual BIR curries, I use between half and one bulb of garlic per serving, depending on the dish. CI dishes, I use between one and two bulbs, depending on the size of the bulbs.
To prepare a garlic paste, peel and top and tail the individual cloves, cut in half removing any green shoots. Blend with a sufficient quantity of oil or water to make a smooth paste, either in a liquidiser or a mini chopper. If using the former, you will probably have to make a big batch, due to the volume of the vessel. Oil based paste must be used immediately, the water based one can be frozen. The big issue with the water based variety is that it is not as smooth as the oil based variety, and some people don’t like tiny lumps of garlic in their curry. It also causes considerably more splatter when frying, but the benefit is you have less chance of scorching it, thereby rendering you curry inedible. The choice is yours. I use water based for BIR, oil based for CI. Forget powdered garlic, it will burn and many varieties are bitter anyway.
2. Ginger paste (Both)
Not really a paste, just roughly chop and blitz into tiny bits. I use about a peeled inch per BIR serving, with at least six or more, depending on thickness and freshness, in a BIR base – which like the garlic, doesn’t need pre-blitzing. Use a bit less if the ginger is clearly fresh and juicy. In a CI, you can get away with cutting it into fine matchsticks or you can grate it on a microplane.
3. Tomatoes (Both)
Some people swear by fresh tomatoes. I generally swear at them. The pathetic, flavourless, watery fruit that generally passes for a tomato in this country is a disgrace. Yes, you can buy decent, fresh tomatoes, but they are crazy expensive and the amount that goes into a curry would eat into the budget I prefer to keep for dedicated spices, which are getting increasingly expensive as well. Tinned tomatoes and puree (in tubes) is fine here. I add brown Demerara sugar to take the bitter edge off. Added at the fry stage, it also aids carmalisation. Budget brands are fine, but do not use the tomato and herb variety. I use 1 tin plus stock in a CI, plus about half a tube of tomato puree. In a BIR base, 2 tins, a tube of puree plus about 1-2 Tbsp (reduced with 2-4 Tbsp water) per serving, depending on the dish. If I’m feeling generous, I might garnish the dish with some fresh tomato. Might.
4. Coriander (Both)
Absolutely, unequivocally, essential in a curry, with a few exceptions, Korma being one. Like garlic, the more of this delicious, heavenly herb, the better. Tear the leaves off and reserve for garnish, and finely chop the stems, adding to a BIR dish after the fry stage. Stir a good handful of leaves in prior to serving, and place a few on top, and Voila, you have a curry made in heaven. Coriander loses flavour quickly, so add the leaves late to the dish, although cooking the tougher stems for longer is OK. For that reason I generally don’t add it to a BIR base, unless I have a bunch that is past its best. Don’t bother freezing it, unless you like a green equivalent of British tomatoes.
5. Onions (Both)
Contention time here. Some people say you have to caramelise onions for a BIR or CI curry base. Some add caramelised onions to BIR dishes to add depth. The only problem with caramelisation is time and money. You will need a lot of onions, and as onions are 85% water, the time taken to remove it can add 40 minutes or more to the cooking time, if done properly. Ignore those who say you can caramelise onions quickly, they are lying to you. Low and slow is the only way. Worthwhile for CI curries, as it adds to the unctuousness of the sauce, but really not necessary for BIR.
Again, quantity matters. In a BIR base, 6 large peeled Spanish onions will be required, plus extra for the dishes themselves, depending on the recipe. For a CI, the more the merrier, 4-6 small brown onions or 2 medium Spanish (finely sliced)should be fine, provided they are nicely softened and cooked for a long time so they dissolve into the sauce or masala.
6. The spices (Both)
These fall into three categories, fresh, whole and powdered. Some of the speciality spices only come in powder, e.g. Tandoori masala barbeque spice. You will need a good selection of all, a minimum being as follows for a good selection of curries (including Chicken tikka masala, Korma, Vindaloo etc.):
Large (bullet) chillies
Small (finger) chillies
Asian bay leaf
Cinnamon sticks (extra long) *
Black and green cardamom
Kashmiri chilli peppers *
Panch Phoran *
Whole (and freshly ground) black pepper
Tandoori masala barbeque spice *
Kashmiri Mirch chilli powder *
Regular (hot) chilli powder
Kasoori methi *
Almond powder *
Coconut Milk Powder (Maggi) *
All purpose seasoning *
Mango chutney *
Don’t bother duplicating hard and powdered spices, except for chillies as I will explain. The hard spices keep pretty much forever in an airtight container, and are best used freshly ground and gently toasted beforehand. The powdered variety is just the hard stuff with an unknown heritage. It might seem extravagant duplicating different chillies, but this is one of the secrets of a superb curry. By balancing different heats and flavours, you will experience a depth of flavour rather than just a heat that rips your throat lining off. Unless you really want to experience pain on a new level, avoid the extra hot varieties e.g. Naga. You can easily get up to Vindaloo heat just with these ingredients.
Most BIR fanatics make their own mix powder, a secret home-made curry powder. A mixture of the above spices and a commercial curry powder (e.g. Schwartz Madras), this is closely guarded secret. You may substitute with the latter commercial blend at a push. Forget Garam masala. Most powdered ones are pretty dire, as this needs to be 100% fresh, it is best make your own. Dried, whole spices can be dry roasted in a frying pan to assist the extraction of natural oils instead of in oil if required.
7. The BIR curry base (BIR)
In a large stockpot or pressure cooker, add 6 halved Spanish onions, 2 tins tomatoes, a large peeled carrot, a chopped, deseeded, pepper, a medium, peeled potato, 6 inches peeled and chopped ginger, as much peeled garlic as you can handle (6 bulbs for me), your mix powder (2-4 Tbsp depending on strength and freshness), a chopped, deseeded, bullet chilli, a tube of tomato puree, 1 Tbsp brown sugar, 1 Tbsp salt, 1 large mug of cooking oil (yes, you read that correctly), and sufficient water to cover. Cook in a pressure cooker for 90 minutes then blend, add water until the sauce is the consistency of milk, and simmer for a further 30 minutes. Alternatively, bring to a boil, cover and simmer vigorously for 2-3 hours or until the onions have dissolved and fall apart. Blitz, adding water to get the correct viscosity, and simmer for a further 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning as required. The resulting sauce or gravy should taste like a spicy soup and be a light brown with a trace of orangish/red oil. Use as directed below in BIR dishes. The base should be kept hot if being added to a BIR curry as you don’t want to drop the temperature of the pan.
8. Pre-cooked ingredients (BIR)
Grab a large pan of the above sauce, and cook whole potatoes, meat, vegetables etc. in it until cooked. If serving vegetarian guests, remember it is rude to cook the chicken / meat first and then use for vegetables. Meats should be cooked until just fork tender, as they will be fried at the next stage. Vegetables should be al dente.
Boned chicken, pork lamb and beef are best ingredients for a CI curry, as chicken breast can become stringy with long cooking times. Substitute breast meat for BIR pre-cooked ingredients.
9. Technique (Both)
Be it BIR or CI, the key, apart from the freshest of ingredients, is heat. A BIR curry chef in a commercial kitchen can knock out a single dish serving in about 3 minutes from scratch. This gives you some idea of the intense heat involved from the gas burners. The secret to a great masala or sauce, is to get as much heat in there as possible, without burning anything. This is especially true of the garlic, ginger, chillies and spices. On the other side of the coin, you want to deep fry the ingredients in oil to extract as much of their natural oils as possible, while creating a spice-tomato-gravy fond on the sides and bottom of the pan, without taking things to extremes. We are aiming here for a milk chocolate coloured fond here, not black plain chocolate. Go too far, and your curry is bin fodder, as the burnt ingredients will be very bitter. So it is essential to have all ingredients prepared and to hand, and be ready to move on the the next stage.
While a CI is generally onions, garlic, spices, and tomato, a BIR utilises the base gravy as an additional frying medium, hence the extraordinary amount of oil. The onions and veg caramelise during the frying stage, adding a deep and savoury texture to the dish. With practice, you will know just the right time to move onto the next stage as the oil takes on colour from the ingredients (bay, cumin tomato puree etc.), and the texture subtly changes and thickens with the oil floating to the top. If you are health conscious, you can scoop any off and reuse it in another curry.
10. A basic BIR curry (BIR)
In a suitable pan, heat at least 3 Tbsp oil on maximum heat until shimmering, but not smoking. Add bay and cinnamon stick first, give 30 seconds, and then add any smaller whole spices e.g. whole cumin seeds. Fry for 30 seconds. Add garlic and ginger, stirring continuously, and as soon as the sizzling dies down, add the powdered spices and fry for 15-30 seconds depending on how hot the pan is. Add the diluted tomato puree to quench, fry until the oil floats and the mixture starts to thicken. Add a good ladle of BIR base and repeat this twice, reducing and stirring occasionally until oil comes to the surface, stirring any fond back in. Add pre-cooked ingredients, sufficient base to make enough sauce, and the chopped coriander then heat through thoroughly. Reduce to desired sauce consistency, stir in coriander leaves and serve.
11. A CI curry (CI)
In a screaming hot pan, add a few Tbsp of oil. Add sliced onions, and fry until softened, or caramelised over a low heat if you prefer. Remove, add a couple Tbsp of oil, and repeat with the garlic and meat for just enough time to quickly sear the meat without burning the garlic. If the garlic starts sticking to the pan or browning, immediately add the powdered spices, and tomato puree to quench, otherwise continue, preferably getting a decent char before adding these ingredients. Fry for a minute or so, then add your stock (you can use a stock cube in a mug of boiling water), tinned tomatoes and coriander stems. You may add dried spices at the fry stage or now if preferred, as the long cook will extract the oils. Cover and simmer until meat is cooked extremely tender, either on the stovetop or in the oven.
12. Recipe resources etc. (Both)
© Rookwood 2020
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