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A Theory on Curry
A treatise for the much ill-treated stew

I have made and eaten many curries.

Having been born and raised in Calcutta, India, until the tender age of ten, I know whereof I speak when I speak of curry. Curry is that rich, ineffable combination of taste and textures that defies all other stews, but at the same time, curry is basically just another stew.

I won’t go into the origins and history of curry here; it’s been done to death, that “curry isn’t just the addition of curry powder” yada yada. My aim here is to examine how to make the best curry possible, hopefully just like the restaurants do, but without the fuss and the muss.

What I will do here is to explain how my personal definition of curry has come to change and evolve over the years.

My first experience of curry was eating it in a dimly-lit, smoky “godown” in Calcutta where the servants lived—this was in the post-colonial 60s—often accompanied by delicious handmade (in front of me!) chapatis and eaten (properly) by hand dipping into mounds of fragrant basmati rice, transferring it to the chapati, then into the lukewarm curry, doing likewise, and then bring the whole affair to the mouth and biting into it with infinite pleasure.

I have no memory of any laborious roasting of spices or elaborate marinating, though that may have been done. I have only the memory of a simple, down-home meal that was a staple of the common folk of Bengal.

After leaving India, my next experience of curry was of the British variety. However, it was not the British restaurant variety, but the institutional kind. I went to a British boarding school, and the cooks making the curry were invariably Spanish, working from recipes presumably provided by the headmaster. This awful, awful concoction consisted of “mince”—ground meat of some sort—a tablespoon of curry powder in a packaged demiglace-type sauce, with evil little raisins and maybe even bits of apple that made the throat involuntarily seize up and threaten to gag. It was vile, but somewhere in my tiny brain, it reminded me of home because it was called “curry.”

The next version of curry that I was exposed to was the version that an African cook named Pierre made in Kinshasa, Zaire, working from a framework presumably created by my mother, who, despite her wisdom, deep love and infinite experience, never knew how to make a curry.

This version was watery, tasteless and filled with bits of meat chock-full of connective tissue and was accompanied by grainy, overcooked potatoes and served on bloated, nameless termites of African rice.

The awakening came, as I remember, in a London restaurant while I was on half-term from school. It was a no-name, working-class Bangladeshi restaurant, but the curry exploded my senses and almost made me faint with recognition. It was the curry of my youth, just a lot hotter.

When I first started cooking, in an Oakland, California art school and living the bachelor life, it was always my aim to recreate the curry of my childhood, but most of the time it was with bad results. I bought books by Madhur Jaffrey or improvised, but at the time my aim was to eat the hottest curry possible, so I rated my productions proudly to my friends in terms of “twenty chilies, thirty chilies,” and so on. Needless to say, I was the only one who ever finished my curries, and only with the help of many San Miguel darks.

The making of the rice was also a problem. The best curry on bad rice is like an atomic bomb without plutonium. It just fizzles. And I had no idea how to cook rice.

Later, I would go through a phase of trying to make the most “authentic” curry possible: buying exotic ingredients like fenugreek or Methi and dry-roasting the spices, marinating the meat and preparing complex spice pastes—all to little avail. Somehow I could not duplicate the magic meal that I had eaten in a humid, 40-degree one-room hut with a fire burning in the floor, waving away flies patiently with one little hand and eating with the other.

I am delighted to report that after these many years and many experiments, I have managed to come within light years of my destination.

The challenge: to make a rich curry that is extremely flavorful without being too hot (some say “spicy”) and that is not so fussy that two trips to the Asian grocery in the far-flung suburbs plus two days of marination and spice grinding (with a mortar and pestle) are necessary.

First, let’s start with the concept. There are many types of curries. In Japan, where I lived for five years, there is something called “Karé Raisu” (Curry Rice) which almost qualifies for the title “national dish.” It’s a mildly spiced yellow curry, usually made from a dry-packaged “roux” base, with bits of beef, served with Japanese rice and sometimes sprinkled with pink pickled things. It’s kind of like the Chef Boy-ar-dee of curries.

In San Francisco, where the majority of Indian restaurants are owned by Hindus, chicken and seafood curries are the norm, but mildly spiced.

I went back to Calcutta in 1997 on the occasion of my 40th birthday to see how the place had changed. It hadn’t. I had. A crushing disappointment was a terrible curry served in a hotel restaurant—one with lots of chicken bones and no taste, going to show that one does not necessarily get the best version of the national dish at every restaurant in a given nation.

A Thai curry eaten in Bangkok came swimming in limes, an unexpected taste-twister. Usually, however, the addition of lemongrass, galangal, coconut and other “exotic” ingredients make Thai curry a most welcome diversion from those of India.

Chinese curries tend to be just whatever’s in the dish plus a tablespoon of curry powder.

But lastly, there is no such thing as curry, a term invented by colonial Britain to describe the countless variety of Indian stews. Ironically, curry in England has now become more commonplace than fish and chips.

So here we have my recipe, which has seemed to work for me recently. I stress that there is no such thing as one curry being more “authentic” than another by the inclusion of exotic and hard-to-find spices such as curry leaves and asafoetida. In fact, good ol’ Patak is one of the main ingredients in this curry. Bear in mind that the measurements given are approximate—you’ll need to make this curry a few times to adjust the seasonings to your liking. The list of ingredients below looks daunting, but it isn’t really. Aside from the Penzey’s spices, most enthusiastic home cooks should have most of the ingredients on their spice racks.

Recipe for Chicken Curry for four

Cooking time, including preparation but not brining: about three hours

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, brined for about 4 hours (see note.)
Two medium onions
6-8 large cloves garlic
Jalapeno, or preferred chili
About 4 or 5 plump, vine-ripened tomatoes
Fresh cilantro
One inch or more of grated ginger
Four or five new potatoes, peeled or not according to your preference
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Chicken broth
Spices (see note)
Ghee (see note)
Oil of choice
Brown sugar

For the spices, because I’m lazy and have not found the pan-roasting spice method to be anywhere appreciably better than ground spices, I rely on Penzey’s series of high-quality curry-related spices. A partial list follows:

(All ground;)

I Tbsp Vindaloo
I Tbsp Balti seasoning
I Tbsp Tandoori powder
I Tbsp hot curry powder
I Tbsp ground cumin
I Tbsp chile powder
I Tbsp Maharajah curry powder
Bay Laurel leaves
(fresher the better)

You can order these spices from www.penzeys.com and they come highly recommended—in fact, they sell them as a package, if I recall correctly. Any self-respecting maker of Indian food should have this spice palette at their beck and call. As substitutes I would recommend one tablespoon each (except where noted) of the following:

Ground Garam Masala (available at most grocers)
Ground curry powder
Ground cumin
Ground coriander
Ground turmeric
Ground cardamom
Ground cayenne
Ground ginger
Ground cinnamon (cassia)
I tsp. ground cloves

Then I use Patak’s curry pastes, whatever suits my mood at the time; I generally have about four different kinds. Use Vindaloo, Tikka, Hot Curry paste or Tandoori. Watch it because they’re salty. I use about three or four level tablespoons all together for one curry.

First, make a “spiced onion” mixture:

Coarsely chop about one and a half onions and put in food processor (you can use a blender). Add all the tomatoes, coarsely chopped (I don’t bother peeling them,) jalapeno, about 1/2 cup of cilantro, garlic, ginger and about a cup of chicken broth and purée to a thick, heavy consistency; set aside.

Now make the curry:

Chop the remaining onion and more if you wish, lengthwise so you have long, large crescent slivers. In a large non-stick frypan (non-stick is the key word here) heat up 1 Tbsp ghee and one tablespoon oil of choice (I use peanut oil; do NOT use olive oil) until hot but not smoking on medium-high heat. Add onions, arrange them evenly in the pan and then let them brown on one side without stirring about 4-5 minutes, then stir and fry another 4-5 minutes until limp. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add a little more oil and then add the chicken breasts, halved if you like (you can always cut them up later) and sauté until brown on both sides but not cooked through (about 7 minutes.)

Now add the spiced onion purée. Stir, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Set the burner on medium and bring the sauce to a medium boil, then reduce to simmer.

The sauce should be thick but not sludgy, easily stirred and about the consistency of crushed tomatoes (sometimes known as tomato sauce, that you get in a can). Add chicken broth to thin, remembering that if it gets too thin you can always simmer with the top off and reduce later.

Cover and let simmer, stirring occasionally, about half an hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the potatoes:

Cut the potatoes in about one-inch cubes. Soak in ice water with one teaspoon of sugar and one teaspoon salt, about one hour (obviously beforehand.)

In another large, nonstick frypan, heat up about a tablespoon of ghee and a tablespoon of oil, on medium-high heat. Drain potatoes and pat dry with paper towels; then CAREFULLY place them in the frying pan. Make sure that you only have one layer of potatoes; if there are too many do them in batches.

Fry them by leaving them on one side, occasionally shaking the pan to prevent them from sticking, for about five minutes, turning one or two over to check doneness. They should be golden brown before you turn them.

Obviously you can’t be turning each potato perfectly, but try to sauté them so that they’re fairly evenly browned. Remove from heat, set aside.

You’re pretty much done at this point. Let the curry simmer but stir it at least every ten minutes and don’t let it burn. Total simmering time should be about one hour--more than that and the chicken will become stringy.

Add the potatoes about 20 minutes before you’re ready to eat—that is, if there are any left. You’ll be munching them by the sneaked forkful.

What to watch for:

I add brown sugar if the curry is too salty. A little white vinegar can give it a kick. I usually taste every ten minutes, constantly adjusting for taste and consistency. One rule of thumb: add ingredients judiciously. You can put things in but you’ll have difficulty taking them out. Don’t enthusiastically add a tablespoon of Dave’s Gourmet Hot Sauce or you’ll be flame-broiling your tongue.

If it’s too thin turn up the heat a bit and let simmer with the top off about 20 minutes. If it’s too thick add chicken broth. If it’s too hot (spicy) add more potatoes; they absorb some of the capsaicin oils from the chilies and mellow things out. You can also add more yogurt or even sour cream.

Before you’re ready to serve, add about a quarter cup of chopped fresh cilantro.

I chop up the chicken into manageable forksful before serving, usually with kitchen scissors.

Serve with basmati rice (see recipe) and pappadums, naan bread or chapatis from your friendly neighborhood Indian grocer, or Nick’s Famous Onion Salad (see recipe).


If beef or lamb is your thing, it’s not a problem. With beef, I use filet mignon. Don’t laugh—it makes the most incredible, fork-tender curry you can imagine. To prepare the beef, you need only chop into one-inch cubes and brown in a frying pan before adding to the curry. However, don’t add the browned beef to the curry until about 20 minutes before serving; overcooking is not the key for filet mignon. Other cuts, such as sirloin or round, can be braised longer— say an hour. Another good variation is Korma curry, with ground beef or lamb. Just make sure the meat is fully cooked. No marination is necessary or desirable.


Brining chicken makes for a plumper, tenderer bird. Boil some water and meanwhile put about half a cup of sea salt and a quarter cup of sugar into a fairly large container. When the water boils, add just enough to completely melt all the salt and sugar. Then add enough cold water to cover the chicken and add the chicken (you can do this with shrimp too—I guarantee it’ll be the best shrimp you ever ate.) Refrigerate covered for up to 12 hours but not less than two.

Ghee (indispensable. Do all your Indian cooking with it.):

2lbs. (900 g.) any kind of butter

1. Place the butter blocks whole into a medium non-stick pan. Melt at a very low heat.

2. When completely melted, raise heat very slightly. Ensure it does not smoke or burn, but don't stir. Leave to cook about one hour. (When I try this on my stove I need to turn it to the absolute minimum setting, or it will turn brown. Watch it carefully.) The impurities will sink to the bottom and float on the top. Carefully skim any off the top with a slotted spoon, but don't touch the bottom.

3. Turn off the heat and allow the ghee to cool a little. Then strain it through paper towels or muslin into an airtight jar. When it cools, it solidifies, although it is quite soft. It should be a bright pale lemon color and smell a bit like toffee. If it has burned, it will be darker and smell different—if it isn't too burned, it can still be used, but the key is: don't let it burn!

Basmati rice

2 cups of rice
2 Cloves
2 Cardamom pods
Stick of cinammon
Chopped garlic
(one or two tablespoons, or to taste)
One or two bay leaves
2 1/3 cups of light chicken stock or water
Green peas

Begin by washing and soaking the rice. Around two hours is good, but more is okay. Try to make sure it’s at least 2 hours.

Drain the rice in a colander.

Put a tablespoon or so of ghee in a medium frying pan (making sure you have a fairly tight-fitting top) and sauté the cloves, cinammon, cardamom and bayleaves in the ghee on medium-high, stirring frequently, for about two or three minutes (once the ghee is hot but not sizzling or smoking). Add the rice and the garlic, and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, sauté all ingredients until the rice takes on a full, somewhat shiny look, about five minutes. Do not leave the rice at this point and do not stop stirring!

Add the chicken broth or water, and stir everything well to get any grains of rice that adhere to the pan in circulation.

Pull off a square of aluminum foil big enough to cover the entire pan, turn the heat down to the lowest setting without turning it off, then put pan lid down over the aluminum foil and seat firmly, aiming to let as little steam as possible escape.

Set timer for 18 minutes. After 18 minutes, turn heat off but don’t remove pan lid. Leave for ten minutes or so, remove pan lid, remove cloves, cardamom, bay leaves and cinammon, fluff up with fork, serve. If desired, add peas (frozen peas should be warmed in a little water in the microwave before adding.)

For softer rice, add up to about 1/3 cup water (making 2 2/3 C altogether). The longer you soak the rice after two hours, the less liquid you’ll need—after four hours’ soaking a cup of liquid per cup of rice will be plenty. The worst sin is overcooked rice.

Nick’s Famous Onion Salad

All ingredients to taste

Purple onion
Vine-ripened tomatoes
Fresh-chopped cilantro
Oil and vinegar or Italian salad dressing
Cracked pepper

Chop onion in thin crescents. Dice peeled cucumber. Dice small amount garlic. Chop tomatoes coarsely. Mix all ingredients and let stand in refrigerator at least one hour. Serve atop curry.

Previous Digressions: Japanese Food

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