Almost fourteen years ago today I was in a sweltering kitchen in Kerala, southwest India, learning to make curry with the indominatable Mrs Moosa, owner of a magnificent guest house overlooking the Arabian Sea. There were four of us and our task was to prepare the evening meal for the other guests – a lively group of French journalists. Ancient pressure cookers hissed dangerously, vats of rice steamed on the hob, and sinus-clearing spices sizzled in battered metal pans. Somehow we managed to produce a decent curry that met with Mrs Moosa's approval, and the guests downed it with relish.
I remember that day with great fondness, for I learned more than I thought possible about curry-making, and Mrs Moosa was a patient teacher. Even now, on a wintry day, I unscrew the lid of a spice jar and back come warm memories of that day in her kitchen.
As a nation, curry is one of our favourite foods, but how many of us really know what it is? In India the word simply means gravy, so a curry is essentially a stew with a pungent sauce. The sauce is the most important part and often has more flavour than the main ingredient.
Some curries – vindaloo or madras for example – are notorious for their chilli-laden heat. While this is true, the heat in a well-made curry also comes from peppercorns, ginger and other warming spices. These create a complex flavour rather than a macho chilli-hit.
If you are new to curries or wary of heat, remember that you can always adapt a recipe to suit your tolerance:
- Use a whole uncut chilli instead of a chopped one, and remove it before the end of cooking.
- Use large pieces of chilli rather than chopping finely. The more cut surfaces, the more heat will migrate into the sauce.
- The seeds contain most of the heat so remove them before cooking.
A well-made curry depends on top-quality ingredients, particularly freshly ground spices. Even at this bleak time of year, traditional butchers, good greengrocers and farm shops offer excellent curry material, much of it in season and locally grown. Apart from spices, there is really no need for exotic ingredients from far-away places.
Above all, remember that making a curry should be an enjoyable and creative experience. They require slow patient cooking, but are infinitely flexible, freeze well and are even better when reheated. It's hard to think of more satisfying way of spending a winter afternoon, the kitchen fragrant with spices and ice-cold beer in the fridge.
Do give my Easy Curry recipe a try. It's a flavour-packed all-purpose sauce that can be made in advance and stored in the fridge or freezer ready for when you want to add the main ingredient. For a mild curry, try adding juicy prawns or chunks of chicken, or even rabbit for a change. For a richly flavoured curry, mutton or goat are good candidates – their meaty juices really stand up to the spices and make a glorious sauce. For a vegetarian version, use chunks of winter squash or cauliflower, tofu or aubergine.
The Spice Pioneer
If you are new to spices and curries, why not subscribe to The Spice Pioneer food flavour boxes. The company delivers a monthly kit containing recipes for a meal, along with carefully measured spices and seasonings. That way, you don't have to hunt for unfamiliar ingredients or buy more than you need. As Spice Pioneer owner Matt Webster says, "For anyone who finds the idea of using spices and spice blends intimidating, this is a great opportunity to demystify the process".
© Christine McFadden, January 2018