If I have received one generous comment over the years that I don't get too embarrassed over, it is that I make a good curry. I am quite proud of this, though I have to admit that the true compliment should be to my grandmother's Indian cook who, without ever meeting us kids, has inspired a generation of curry cooks in my family. But whichever route the knowledge came, I hold my hands up and say that yes, I might a good curry, but the real heroes are three really important ingredients – onion, garlic and ginger.
Forget your clever curry pastes, your amazing herbs, the quality of your oil; if you do not get this very basic starter right, you will not end up with a curry.
In India, they use a huge stone to create their starting point. On this lump of granite they put chopped garlic, ginger and their spices, and plenty of them, then crush them together with another heavy stone. Back and forth they grind one stone against the other until they have a thick paste. To be honest, I think families in urban India use an electric spice grinder, but this is a fun way of preparing your spices and I will take you through it another time.
So, how to cook a basic curry
The idea of this recipe is not to cook any particular curry but to take you through the common process that is behind just about anything that can be called a curry. The ingredients are just a guide, but the core of onion, garlic and ginger is essential.
Skin and roughly chop the onions. Crush and peel the garlic. Peel the ginger. Bung all three into a food processor and wizz it up at high speed until you have a pureé – not a chopped up mix, this must be a pureé. If the onions are on the dry side and you are not getting the pureé, add a couple of tablespoons of water. It will cook off.
In a heavy-bottomed pan, put enough oil to cover the bottom – don’t go over the top, curries are not the healthiest of food in the first place! Heat it to a medium temperature.
Throw in the panch puran whole spices and fry till the mustard seed starts to pop. Don't burn the spices!
Now add the onion mixture. Cook this mix for anything up to 15 minutes, stirring from time to time to stop it sticking, until all the water has gone. You may need to turn the heat down if it is cooking too quickly. Cooking slowly for a long time really breaks down the structure of the onions, and this will produce the thick curry sauce later.
Add curry paste of your choice (pick a nice quality one like Bolsts, or better still, make your own) and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the beef or lamb and fry. Turn the pan down and cook for an hour or so until the beef is tender. DO NOT cover the pan, and stir often to make sure it is not sticking. Remember, curry is a fried dish and not a stew. That was the problem with the horrible curries friend's mothers used to serve up when I was a kid - they were basically an English stew with curry powder thrown in. Yuk!
One thing to note is that when they cook curries in many Indian restaurants, they pre-cook both the meat and the sauce and then combine them when you order whichever variation. A pity this; it is not the best way of cooking a curry which might explain why it can be hard to find a really good curry in much of this country.
Depending on how much fluid comes out of the beef and how dry you want your curry, you may wish to add a little water and season to taste. Don't add much, though, as it will weaken the lovely, warm, rich taste.
Once it is all cooked, serve with bread or rice and dahl and throw in a cold glass of Belgium beer!
So there you go; a basic curry. You will find a lot of curries on this site as it is one of my favourite dishes, but they all start with the same three heroes, the basic ingredients that together define what a curry is.