Temper whole spices such as mustard seeds, cumin seeds, cloves and cinnamon in hot sunflower, vegetable or groundnut oil (ghee isn't always necessary) until they pop and sizzle to release flavour. This is the way you should begin cooking any curry as it will change the flavour of the spices significantly.
It’s the Indian equivalent of Thai fish sauce in terms of seasoning. Although it is a tree-based gum, asafoetida or 'hing' adds a garlic/onion flavour to your curries. Let it sizzle with your whole spices in hot oil for a few seconds before adding the rest of your ingredients.
You don’t have to add cream. For a dairy-free creamy curry, try soaking cashew nuts or skinned almonds in hot water for an hour, then blending with water to create a smooth paste. Cook in hot oil, along with your whole spices until the oil separates from the sauce (this will take about 20 minutes). Then add in your ground spices and tomatoes if you’re using them.
Curry leaves are your friend. They’re different to bay leaves and add a delicious South-Indian, restaurant-style flavour to your dish. You can find fresh curry leaves in your local Indian supermarket. Don’t bother with dried curry leaves – they taste of absolutely nothing. Add them to the hot oil when you’re frying spices to release heaps of aroma. They’re perfect in potato curries.
If you are using onions, always cook them thoroughly. Adding a pinch of salt will help them brown faster. Always add garlic afterwards to prevent it from burning and making the dish bitter.
If you’re adding saffron, make it go that extra mile by placing it a bowl and microwaving on high for 15 seconds. When you add it to your dish, it will release heaps more flavour than if you didn't.
Don’t always reach for the onions and garlic. Not all curries need them. A favourite dish of mine is simply made with mustard seeds popped in hot oil, lots of ginger, green chillies, boiled potatoes, a pinch of turmeric, lemon juice and salt. Sometimes less is more.
Keep a stash of tinned chopped tomatoes and a tube of tomato puree in your cupboard at all times. A tin of chopped tomatoes with a squeeze of tomato puree is the perfect base for any curry. Just remember to add a pinch of sugar to neutralise any acidity.
It’s perfect for cooking everything from beans, to lentils and root vegetables in no time at all. All you need to do is temper your spices, add tomatoes, veggies, seasoning and cook with the lid on. Sliced potatoes will take less than 10 minutes, split lentils, around 15 minutes and whole, soaked beans, approximately 20-25 minutes.
Experiment with garnishes. Flaked coconut, toasted sesame seeds, poppy seeds, fried onions tamarind juice, dried fenugreek leaves, deep-fried chillies and fresh pomegranate are often overlooked and totally delicious.