When I first started eating Indian curries, back when I was a student, I knew there was something special going on. The depths and layers of flavour in one bite were pretty astounding, and very different from the type of food I had been used to. When I tried to replicate these meals at home, the results were nowhere near as complex and delicious as from my favourite restaurants. Even those sub-par greasy Indian joints could make better curries than I could at home.
Then, about two years ago, I came across this post at TheKitchn, and my technique changed. In that article, the authors describe how to build layers of flavour, starting with spices, onions, ginger/garlic, tomatoes, then finally adding meat. It is no coincidence however, that the article was posted in their "Weekend Cooking" series. It takes a long time to cook, but thankfully, much of that time is inactive.
I recently made a version of this curry for our iPad announcement party - yes, we're big geeks! I began cooking at 11am and we ate at 6:30pm. Please don't be discouraged though: active cooking time was less than 1 hour!
As a bonus, I was able to clean the house, do laundry, and prepare everything else for the meal in between attending to the curry. The only cleaning I like to do involves the kitchen, so I need to play a little game with myself for the remainder of the house. This game is akin to a parenting strategy I often hear: "Let me time you to see how fast you can put away your toys!" except for me it's "Can I dust the entire house before I have to stir the onions again?"
Since the curry takes some effort and time, I've increased the recipe to yield a whole pot! This provides our small family of two 5 generous meals. The goal is always to freeze some and eat it later, but we love it so much we just eat it for 5 days in a row!
I also changed the recipe from the original to suit our preferred spices and heat levels. I've tried it with beef, bison, lamb and chicken. All worked well, although the red meats take much longer.
Spicy Northern-Style Indian Curry
active cooking time: less than 1 hour
inactive cooking time: ranging from 2-3 hours for chicken to 6-7 hours for beef
yield: 10 generous portions
Please don't be discouraged by the amount of spices included in the recipe. In fact, if you don't have these, use others. I have experimented with other combinations, and allspice and fennel would are nice here too. Amchur powder is another one I've used sometimes. Again, the time commitment here is largely non-active. Cleaning the house, or reading a book is a good complimentary activity.
Clockwise from top: cinnamon, bay leaves, black pepper, cloves, yellow mustard seed, black mustard seed, cumin, black cardamom, green cardamom, star anise
- canola oil, enough to cover the bottom of the pot, maybe 1/3 cup
- pinch of asafoetida (omit if you can't find it)
- 2 two-inch cinnamon sticks
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp black pepper
- 15 whole cloves
- 1 tsp white mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin
- 4 black cardamoms
- 6 green cardamoms
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek (I didn't use it this time)
- 2 star anise
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 4 large onions, sliced
- 5 fresh or frozen red chillies (we use about 10-15, but for guests, 5 chillies yield a medium heat level)
- 2-inch piece of ginger (I freeze mine, then it makes it easier to grate)
- 4 garlic cloves (or more if you like)
- 1 large can whole tomatoes
- 1 can tomato paste
- 1 jar tomato puree (if you don't have your own, use another can)- 1 tbsp garam masala, or more
- 5 lbs cubed beef, bison, lamb or chicken, or more, or less
- large handful of coriander and fresh chillies for garnish, if you like
1. Heat the oil in a large pot on medium-high. I use an enamelled cast iron dutch oven. Sprinkle in the asafoetida, let it sizzle for a few seconds, then toss in all the whole spices. Fry the spices in the oil until you hear or see the mustard seeds and cumin start to pop, approximately 2 minutes.
2. At this point, quickly add all the onions, a generous pinch of salt, along with the turmeric. Stir to coat the onions with the oil and spices. Let the onions saute on low heat for 30-45 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot if some bits get stuck. You can add some water if you notice the onions sticking too much. Return to the pot every 15-20 minutes to stir the onions.
3. Add the chillies, garlic and ginger, along with the tomato products. Cook for another 30-45 minutes, stirring every 15-20 minutes. Taste the curry at this point and add more salt since the tomatoes often need it to enhance their flavour. The curry will be ready when the oil separates from the sauce. You will see it floating on top of the tomatoes and it will look a little darker than the remainder of the sauce.
4. At this point, add in the garam masala and the cubed meat. For chicken, the curry will be ready in 20 minutes. For red meat, it sometimes takes another 2 hours, or even 3 hours, depending on the size of the cubes and quality of the cut. Stir the curry every 20-30 minutes. I usually start cooking the curry around lunchtime, then just let it simmer on low until the meat is done. If it's tender before dinner, I just reheat it when it's time to serve.
5. Serve over basmati rice, garnishing with cilantro and fresh chillies if you like.