A Beginner's Guide to Curry

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There are many people ignorant or afraid of curry, even in Britain. This Entry aims to help by providing a guide to the different heats, flavours and ingredients of the commonest 'Indian' curry types.

The first thing to say about curry is, it doesn't have to be hot. Many of the most delightful curries are the least spicy. This list will be ordered roughly from the mildest to the strongest. A useful tip if you find yourself in an 'Indian' restaurant, or another establishment where curry is on the menu, is that you can ask for a strength you're happy with. Most restaurants will try to oblige - they want repeat business, after all.

The second thing is that the term 'Indian' is used very loosely - many of these restaurants are actually run by people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or even Sri Lanka. The food heritage is shared across the sub-continent, and most restaurants serve dishes from right across the region (Kashmir, Madras, etc). A rule-of-thumb is that food from nearer the equator is hotter - watch out in a Sri Lankan restaurant, where a curry can blow your socks off!

The final thing to note is, Indian food doesn't have to have a sloppy sauce - those that do are classic 'curries', those that don't are usually 'tandoori' food - baked in a traditional clay oven, or tandoor.

The main ingredient of a curry is often chicken (murgh), meat (gosht - usually lamb), prawns (chemmeen) or vegetables (eg saag is spinach). If the menu specifies the meat as mutton or goat, it is well worth a try if you like a richer, gamier flavour. The heat of a curry may come from a variety of sources - spicy vegetables include onions, peppers, red chilli and green chilli, plus spices like cinnamon and ginger may also feature. Pre-prepared curry powder that you might find in supermarkets for making your own 'curry' at home is not used, as the spice blends are different for different dishes.

Mild Curries

Korma - This is known as the classic 'beginner's' curry, as it has a very mild flavour. The creamy sauce is traditionally made with almonds, although there are many variations available. It can seem over-sweet or bland to the more experienced palate, but it is often a worthy dish.

Tikka Masala - Another 'safe' option. The meat (usually chicken) is marinated and cooked in spices before the mild and creamy tomato sauce is added. According to legend Chicken Tikka Masala was invented in Glasgow, when an ignorant Brit demanded a sauce to go with his Chicken Tikka, which would normally have been dry.

Kashmiri or Malayan - These curries contain lashings of fruit, such as raisins, pineapples, banana or lychees making them sweet and sometimes rather sickly. The flavour may be something like warmed-up 'Coronation Chicken'.

Pasanda - The king of the mild curries. This royal dish flavoured with cinnamon has a creamy sauce that may contain almonds, coconut or figs. Highly recommended, especially for people who have been eating vindaloos for years and suffering from them quite badly.

Medium Curries

Dopiaza - The name literally means 'double onion' - there should be plenty of onion cooked in the sauce, and plenty of raw onion sprinkled on top. Not recommended if you have romantic intentions later in the evening, but great if you're sharing a caravan with a bunch of mates and wish to develop a wordless form of communication.

Rogan Josh - Popularly made with lamb, this is a fairly traditional spicy curry with lots of tomatoes.

Bhuna - This has a traditional spicy curry flavour, but with a thicker, drier sauce. Most usually made with chicken.

Balti - This is made in a Balti dish and contains a wide variety of spices, making it one of the more expensive options on the menu. The ingredients are cut into large chunks and the sauce is thicker than a standard curry, because it is served not with rice but with a Naan bread which doubles as the tool for eating it. Now it is less trendy it is finding a worthwhile place on most menus.

Karahi - Similar to the Balti, this is served in a sizzling, red-hot dish, providing aural stimulation as well as taste and smell.

Murgh Massala - This is a 'special' and sometimes has to be ordered in advance. Unusually, it combines two meat types; it consists of large pieces of chicken (or in extreme cases, an entire baby chicken) in a sauce made with minced lamb. The only dish which can retain its dignity while containing raisins.

Hot Curries

Jalfrezi - Cooked with a large quantity of peppers (capsicums and/or chillis), this dish is one of the most visually appealing, but the taste can be anything from a lively medium to a challenging heat, depending on the amount of green chilli used. Quirky.

Dhansak - This dish is actually of Persian origin, and contains lentils. If you can stand the methane-loaded after-effects it can be one of the tastiest dishes.

Ceylon - This dish is hot and sour, although it contains coconut, which should make it sweeter and cooler. Never quite as exciting as it sounds.

Madras - This one should be hot but flavoursome - not just a basic curry loaded up with chilli powder. It is unusual because it actually contains the leaves of the curry plant (Murraya koenigii) whose name is now synonymous with the entire genre of curry.

Very Hot Curries

Vindaloo - This must contain potatoes (aloo) to be genuine, and the meat should be marinated in vinegar (hence the vin). Often, but not always, blisteringly hot, the spuds help to take some of the edge off, but a lassi1 is also recommended with this dish. Build up to it slowly, but the taste can bring a reward worth a little suffering.

Phall - Often used as a rite-of-passage for people wanting to prove their macho image, this is a dish packed full of chillis. You will sweat profusely, it will hurt, and you won't enjoy it. If you must eat one, put your toilet paper in the fridge before you go to bed, as the chilli is not broken down by your digestive system.

Other Dishes

Not everything that you might find on the menu is a curry. There are a range of side dishes, from naan bread to samosas. However, some of these dishes might be quite spicy. For example Biryani is a dry dish of rice cooked up with curry spices. Often served with a mild vegetable curry, in itself it can be classed as medium hot. Sabji is spicy vegetables. It is usually a mild dish, but can be made hotter if more chilli is added. Sambhar is a hot lentil stew from South India.

1A cooling yoghurt drink.

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