The Building Blocks of Curry

by Oliver Hagen May 10, 2015 4 min read

The Building Blocks of Curry

I’ve concluded that no amount of steps or measuring is what makes a good curry. Rather, a good curry is a good understanding of some fundamental cornerstones, and whatever expression you like in between. The cornerstones are:

  1. Brown the Meat - really brown it.
  2. Lots of fresh, heavy-hitting spices in your paste: chilli, garlic, ginger are the usual culprits
  3. Good stock - cannot be overstated.
  4. Time & layers
  5. Balancing salt, chilli, and sweet/acid.

The rest is optional:

  • Choose your spices: cinnamon / garam masala/ fenugreek etc
  • The body of your sauce: tomato/ capsicum / onion based. Or a ground-nut curry like a korma which uses cashew or almond flour.
  • Adding cream, ghee, yogurt etc

It’s these optional additions that give the curry its name, they follow the spices of the region. Like In india you get Turmeric from Kashmir or Mustard seeds from Southern India etc.

Its a cold day in Melbourne today and I’ve just picked up some chuck steak from Dave Snags at our Prahran store so I figured I’d cook a curry. Instead of writing a recipe, I’m going to try to hone in on just the important parts, 1-5 I outlined above. I’m not going to stick to a particular style, I’m just going to use what I’ve got in the cupboard and I’m sure it will work out.

Here you can see I’ve got some ginger, garlic, red chilli, coriander some spices (ground coriander, turmeric and mustard).

The first thing I’m going to do is brown this meat. I’m going to use my stainless steel pot, as I find it gets a really good colour on things. I thought about using my cast iron plate (as it gets screaming hot and is best for colour) but ill go with the pot as that way I can deglaze it and get all the good stuff off - and also use it for the sauced-up curry later and save on washing up.

I’ve got about 600g of chuck steak here. I’ll split it into two groups so that I can keep a manageable amount in the pan at once and the pan won’t have to work too hard to brown the meat. Get your element or gas cranked right up, in with some ghee or other oil (i’m using canola) no EVOO please!!! throw in half the steak when the oil just starts to smoke.

My opinion is that you’re doing it right if you’re filling your house with smoke to the point where the alarm is going off, mind you not everyone in my house agrees with me on this.

Try not to stir it too much, you want it to almost stick to the bottom and get really brown. Swap the batches over when you’re done with the first lot.

When you’re done your pan should look like this

The next step is not something I’ve not seen indian chefs doing but it’s essential for your own sanity in cleaning up: deglaze the pan with some kind of acid or alcohol. I threw in a couple of tablespoons of rice vinegar. The benefit is twofold: much easier to clean up, and you don’t let any of those delicious caramelised fats and sugars go to waste.

Next we’re making a paste. This is super easy: just throw anything you like in a blender. So long as it includes chilli and garlic you’ll be fine. I’m adding a healthy amount of ginger, the roots and stems of the coriander, and an onion. A few tablespoons of oil and some water help get things going.

It should look like this. I’ve added the pan juices from browning the meat here on top. I also added my spices to the paste after I blended it.

Now you can gently heat the paste in the original pot, until it gets neighbours-scratching-at-your-door fragrant, then throw the meat back in.

Now for the easy part: add your stock and a bunch of water. Looks like I’ve added maybe 800-1000ml. How much water you add isn’t important so long as you haven’t added any salt to your stock or paste. Just keep the whole thing really wet as this is the best way to get your meat tender quickly.

Let it go for ~3 hours covered, until your beef is almost as tender as you like it. When you’re at this stage add something to thicken it, I’m going with ground almond as I love the look and texture. This needs some time cooking to soften and integrate, so I’ll give it another 45mins.

At this stage I also like to add another round of spices, more of what I had before, coriander and turmeric and mustard. The reason for this is that they change a lot over time. Curry is about layers and complexity. If you have long-cooked spices and fresher ones too you gain a greater depth of flavour - just don't go throwing in something like garlic at the last minute! 

The final step is to fine tune the curry. This is when you reduce the curry down to the consistency you like, then as you taste you can add chilli, salt, pepper, sugar etc until you’ve got it just how you like it.