The most thrilling moment in the study of any subject comes when you realise that what seems an impossibly complicated discipline is in fact underpinned by a few simple principles. It’s like that moment when Keanu Reeves learns to read the Matrix. A sudden, exhilarating rush of clarity.
It happened to me for the first time when, shortly before my A-level physics exam, I realised that you could deduce the answers to any question from just five equations. And I had the same experience recently when being taught to make curry in a small kitchen in a house near Luton by Mamta Gupta, who was helping us develop a curry dish for Leon.
Mamta is a master of Indian home cooking and something of an internet phenomenon. She started a recipe blog in 2001, encouraged by her daughters who wanted to use her recipes when they left home (mamtaskitchen.com). But this treasure trove of sound advice soon found a wider audience – it has had more than 15m hits with more, interestingly, coming from India than from the UK.
Be generous with your spices. Spices not only bring flavour but texture to dishes. Most supermarkets sell spices in misleadingly small containers. You can buy bigger packets from Asian supermarkets, which will encourage you to spoon in the spices with a freer hand. (You can store them in the freezer to stop them going stale.)
Decide how you are going to cook your onion, ginger, and garlic. This triumvirate provides the deep base flavour of most curries, equivalent to onion, carrot and celery in the French tradition. (NB: garlic is not essential. Some Indians eschew it completely on account of its pungency and it is often left out of food served at weddings to avoid offending guests.) Soften them without colouring for a lighter curry (as in the first recipe) or cook them longer and caramelise (as in the second) for something richer and darker.
Decide what is going to give your curry sauce its body. This will normally be one, or a combination, of the following: tomatoes; pureed peppers or chillies; yoghurt or cream; coconut milk; spinach, or finely diced or pureed onion.
Bear these principles in mind, and curry-making will become simple and pleasurable. You will be free to improvise. You will become the master of your very own curry matrix.
Place all the paste ingredients, with a good pinch of salt, in a food processor or liquidiser and blitz until you have a smooth paste.
Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan or shallow frying pan until hot. Tip in the paste ingredients and fry over a medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the chicken pieces, season well and cook for another 10 minutes, turning the chicken over in the paste. Add enough stock to make a thick sauce, and bring up to the boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer uncovered for another 15 minutes.
To finish, add a squeeze of lemon, sprinkle of coriander and check it is seasoned well. Serve with plain boiled rice.
•Make a veggie curry by frying the paste and cooking various veggies – for example sweet potato and cauliflower – in it. Add a few cooked tinned pulses to complete the dish.