(I can sense a lot of nervousness sometimes in people, when they are shopping to make an Indian curry or as they cook it. Questions such as ‘what have I missed?’, or ‘am I on the right track?’. Millions of recipes in books and on the internet tell us how, not the why of cooking. Here I will attempt to help you understand the basics to boost your confidence.)
There are all sorts of curries as curry is a very loose word for the majority of sauces in which meat, vegetables or the both are served Asian style. These sauces vary in colour, consistency, taste and ingredients. In Indian restaurants you read in the menu, words such as jalfrezi, vindaloo, dopiaza, tikka etc or in South-east Asian restaurants words such as sambal manis, sambal tumis etc. These are all different sorts of curries or rather, originate from one curry, and then get tweaked to achieve a certain taste, thickness or colour etc.
Basically there are 5 ingredients that are usually at the root of a curry. These are onions, garlic, ginger, chillies and tomatoes. They provide the bulk or base to which are added other things such as spices, herbs , fluids, etc. As a rule of thumb you use around 3-4 onions, a few cloves of garlic, an inch or two of ginger and a couple of chillies. You blend these together, fry them gently in oil then add in the tomatoes and then the spices, and then go along adding spices, meat , vegetables etc as it cooks and simmers.(Hare krshna followers use asafoetida, a substitute for onion and omit garlic.)
All sorts of variations branch out from this basic five ingredients. For example, tomatoes are omitted and replaced by mango or pomegranate powder if one needs a very dry sauce e.g just to coat vegetables or stuff them. A sambal on the other hand is a basic south east Asian and Southern Indian sauce, cooked by omitting the ginger, and usually even without spices. It is amazing when you taste a sambal to know that it comprises of only blended onions, a few curry leaves, red chillies, and garlic cooked gently with a tomato and some thick coconut milk.
In any curry, tomatoes can be replaced by apples or plums for a fruitier taste. Coconut milk, milk or double cream are added for a creamy consistency. Grated beetroot brings redness to a curry, turmeric and chili powder combined bring a fresh dark orange colour, and spinach , spring greens and fresh coriander bring greeness. Red onions make curries more darker too. In a jalfrezi , peppers are added for that peppery taste, whilst more chillies are added to a vindaloo.
Globalisation and modern day shopping brings so many more ingredients from around the world to us, and helps us explore better and stretch our creativity and imagination during cooking to achieve more fusion food .For example, Singaporean noodles involve a fusion of Indian and Chinese cooking ingredients such as turmeric, soya sauce, sesame oil, chilli powder etc.
Back to our curry, once you have created a lovely sauce by frying gently a blend of onions, garlic , chillies and ginger, you then make it more fluid by adding freshly chopped or canned tomatoes, even some yoghurt if desired, and then a small array of spices for taste and colour. These include a sprinkling of turmeric, chilli powder, cinnamon powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, star anise and even crushed cardamons and a few cloves.You can even dry roast or fry a few of these whole in the wok before you start frying the onion mix.
You then allow this mixture to simmer gently till oil bubbles arise and begin to float. This is a sign that the onions etc and spices are cooked and ready for the vegetables and meat to be added. These are then cooked with some water or fluids such as coconut milk. Leave the lid off if it is looking too runny or add more liquid if it is too thick and lower the fire if its touching the bottom of the pan.
Traditionally, North Indians love to add a sprinkling of dry fenugreek leaves to this bubbling mixture and South Indians sprinkle curry leaves. Both are aromatic. In vegeterian, fish, egg, or prawn curries, you can also add a teaspoon of yellow, or black (or both!) mustard seeds. Asians love adding few whole fenugreek seeds too, at the beginning of cooking, and a tiny amount of mustard oil for added flavour. Towards the end you may want to add a sprinkling of garam masala as well. Once a curry is cooked, a sprinkling of chopped coriander leaves and maybe a squeeze of lime, as well as a knob of butter all helps towards a better taste. This should help you see why curry recipes differ one from the other and understand the basics that are involved.