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Principles of Curry

True to form, this installment of Tai’s cooking ramblings is about CURRY.

So I have gone over a number of curry recipes in my Asian Cookbook, scouring them for any patterns. The patterns for currying are fairly simple, and I think I have pretty much understood the why of most methods….

Note that I will only talk about meat-based curries, as these are all I have been able to read up on so far. And all I am interested in, to be quite honest.

0) Main concepts

Firstly, curry is basically about adding spices to your otherwise main ingredients.

Secondly, know there are two main ways of spicing your meat: marinated in a bowl for several hours (or even days), or using heat from the pan.

Thirdly, know that there are two main types of curry: dry curry and curry with sauce.

Fourthly, for sauce-based curries, know that you can add the meat you are currying to the pan before the liquid, after the liquid, or with the liquid.

And now for the general template…

1) Select the spices

There is a wide array of spices to choose from, and most of them are of the type that do not burn your mouth. When I say “spicy”, this does not necessarily imply “using paprika/chili/hot peppers”. Think of turmeric, saffron, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, the humble onion, coriander seed, etc etc. These are all spices. You can also include herbs in this list as well, along with usual seasonings such as salt and pepper, and even fragrant teas if you so want.

Some have more of a musty taste, some more sweet, some are simply colourful without being too strong in aroma, some are grassy… Use your nose and a bit of imagination. Think of the kind of meat you are going to use.

The combinations are limitless.

2) Chop the meat

In curries, the meat is cooked in bite-size chunks from the start. Most of the combining of the ingredients happens pretty quickly, so it is important that the meat be cut before anything else is done. At this point I should note that a little goes a long way. Say you would serve a quantity of two chicken breast fillets for one person. I would use two chicken breast fillets for a curry for four to five people. Especially when a sauce will be present.

In the same vein, any large/long vegetables you intend to use should be sliced and diced in advance, for the same reason, although this is less of a concern. Do as you see fit.

3) Spice the meat

Here’s where we start to make variations:

a) Marinate

Marinating meat is a matter of mixing the meat with a selection of the spices you are using. In a bowl, add the spices with a tablespoon or two of water, and stir to mix evenly. You can even use a blender for this, if you are using, say nuts or fragrant vegetables.

Then mix in the meat so that each piece is nicely coated. You can use your hands to do this, it is much more efficient than trying to play around with a ladle or spatula. Just remember to wash thoroughly before and after.

Leave this marinade in a bowl in ambient temperature for 2-3 hours, or covered in the fridge for a day or two. In the fridge, covering is important – otherwise all the contents of the fridge, especially the butter, will taste of curry thereon after…

b) Heated in the pan

You can simply heat oil in the pan and add all the spices immediately. You will need to ensure that everything you are going to use is at hand, because this is going to go pretty fast and you don’t want anything burning.

3 bis) The pan spices / softening the vegetables

This is basically like 3b), except that 3a) there will be a separate set of spices that you are heating in the pan, as opposed to the ones that you are marinating the meats in. They could actually be exactly the same, but there’s little point in that.

This applies especially when you are using vegetables as well as the meat, wherein you are softening them before proceeding to the rest of the cooking. If using onions or other vegetables, some recipes call for browning, some advise against.

The effect of browning onions and garlic is, beyond softening them, is also breaking down some of their more potent components into sweeter versions. Again, depending on what you are trying to achieve, do it or don’t do it, at leisure.

4) Add the liquid (optional)

A curry does not necessarily need to be a sauce. As a point of illustration, chicken tikka is (or so I am told) a dry curry, that was brought to the UK from India. Chicken tikka masala however was allegedly invented in Glasgow, when the autochtonous eaters wondered why the curry was so dry… No sauce to dip their chips in.

a) Nature of the liquid

i) The classic liquid is coconut milk. You can find this in cans or cartons in supermarkets, or in Asian food stores you can even find bags of dried coconut milk. The latter is better value for money, though you have to prepare it in advance of your cooking (takes two minutes).

ii) The other very popular liquid base is yoghurt or cream. Mild or sour, yours to decide which you use. I personally would go for the milder variety, as it interferes less with the spices I selected, but that’s simply a point of opinion.

b) Adding the liquid

i) Liquid first – If you add the liquid first, you are essentially allowing it to absorb the spices and the vegetables flavour in advance of adding the meat. In such a way, flavours are likely to bleed both ways, from sauce to meat and meat to sauce.

This is also useful if the meat is quick-cooking and you can’t allow it to be in cooking heat for too long, such as with some fish and most seafood.

ii) Meat first – In this case, you are not really adding much of the flavours to the meat, as when it hits the hot pan, searing will occur, sealing up the meat. Make sure you are stirring well so that none of the meat is burned, or end up unevenly cooked. Some juices might bleed out into the pan, but the meat will generally keep a relatively distinct flavour from the sauce.

Once searing is complete – the outside of the meat is cooked, but the inside is still pretty raw – you can add the liquid.

This technique is most advisable if you’ve marinated the meat with different flavours than those you heated in the pan.

iii) Meat and liquid together -You might also have been marinating the meat in spices in the liquid in advance. In which case, just add everything together. It becomes a bit like the situation described in 4bi), except that the liquid at this point is still cold, and everything will heat up together.

Quite frankly, I have no idea in what situations you would do this. It’s just that I’ve read it, so I include the idea.

5) Simmer for a while

In the case of sauce-based curries, you will need to leave time to simmer for the meat to cook. This is best based on your judgement, and how small your meat pieces are.

A rough bet is about ten/fifteen minutes simmering, whilst stirring from time to time to avoid the mixture burning to the bottom of the pan.

You can check the readiness by isolating a big chunk of meat and cutting it at its thickest to see if it is cooked all the way through.

6) Eat it 🙂

And it’s done. Serve with white rice – Thai or Basmati are the classic types (please note that for best delectation there should be around two volumes of rice per volume of curry) – or couscous, or even simply on/with bread.


Post Scriptum

To illustrate the limitless spice combination concept, I have a little anecdote.

When I was a child, I used to like the idea of potions – from comics like Asterix (and the Druid Competition story), through various fairy tales, and other alchemic stories, I just imagined myself concocting some miraculous potion.

Goodness knows why, but one day I raided my mother’s spice cabinet. I took a little bit of each spice powder in there and put it in a milkshake shaker I had got as a freebie somehow. The deed done, I proceeded to add a spoon of it to boiling water. To my dismay, it didn’t even dissolve into an interesting soup. I sealed the mixer and left it in my bathroom for years.

When cleaning out my room once I had left for uni, my mother chanced upon this magical mix and recognized the contents as spices. Having verified this with me, and I “not being able” (read: not willing) to detail the reason for its existence, multiple curries were made out of it.

They were each eminently palatable, even if I do say so myself. Pretty impressive for a completely random, unmeasured mix of spices… 😀

Next time on the Tai cooking channel: stir fry, or turning leftovers into feature meals.

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