When going for curry, there are a few things I’ll order almost on auto-pilot, taking no shame in the cliché – jalfrezi, achari, and anything with spinach. Cooking any of them at home, however, is something I’ve more or less resisted. A lot of food writers have spent a lot of time and ink trying to help Britons synthesise caricature curry house dishes at home, and it’s rarely a success. If nothing else, it’s not very practical to make the industrial quantities of base sauces.
To try and duck that failure – and with zero claims to the remotest authenticity – this is a simplified mash up of some of my favourite curry flavours.
This recipe takes the basic spicy/sour pickle flavours of an achari curry, bolts it onto a standard onion-thickened base sauce, and then throws spinach at it. Because spinach. You can skip that part if you’re some kind of pervert.
Achari is all about the pickle flavours, and it’s tempting to dump in a load of lime pickle at the end. Plenty of restaurants do, and the steamroller sourness is a dead give-away. But quite apart from losing a lot of subtly if you use pickle, you’ll also miss out on the wonderful aromas as you grind and fry the seeds.
A lot of the recipes I looked at for this use mustard oil, noting that it’s a strong flavour and not to all tastes. That sounded like a challenge, but I couldn’t get my hands on any when I was cooking this, so I’ll have to try it later and report back. Instead, I’ve fractionally upped the quantity of mustard seeds. I’ve also omitted the asafoetida you see in a few achari recipes. Partly this is because I keep forgetting to buy it, but also because a little quick research suggests it doesn’t really contribute much to the final flavour.
I’m using tinned spinach here, too. No, I’ve not lost my mind – it’s perfectly fine for a lot of cooking, especially if it’s going to simmer for a bit and get cooked down, or be puréed anyway. Plus, using the fresh stuff in high quantities is a right pain in the dick.
This serves about 4
- Chicken thighs, 1 large one per person
- 2-3 onions
- Greek yoghurt, about 200g
- Fresh coriander, about 30g
- Spinach, in this case a few spoonfuls the tinned chopped stuff, probably about 150g
- 3 cloves of garlic
- Green chillis, to taste
- Fresh ginger, a couple of cm
- A little stock, probably vegetable
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1.5 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp nigella seeds (sometimes referred to as kalonji)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 0.5 tsp ground fenugreek
- 0.5 tsp chilli powder
- 0.5 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp ground amchoor (dried mango powder)
Bone and skin the chicken thighs, cut them into strips, and fry them on a high heat until nicely browned. Put them to one side. You don’t have to do this first, it’s probably sensible to do it in parallel with frying the onions.
Slice the onions thinly, and set them frying on a low heat with plenty of oil and maybe a little butter. Preferably, use a heavy pan. We’re going to more or less caramelise them, or at least cook them down to a rich golden mush. Cover them, and stir occasionally, making sure they don’t burn or stick. I won’t lie, this takes ages. 20 minutes is about the least you’ll get away with, 30-40 isn’t unusual.
Chop the coriander, and fine-chop the garlic and ginger. De-seed the chillis and slice into strips. Put these ingredients to one side.
Measure the fennel, mustard, cumin, and nigella seeds out, and grind them roughly with a pestle and mortar. Measure out the ground spices (fenugreek, chilli, garam masala, and amchoor) and have them handy.
When the onions are basically cooked to a rich pulp, raise the heat slightly, and add the garlic, ginger, and chillis. Fry them for a minute or two, and then add the seed spices. Cook these, stirring regularly, for a minute or so, or until any remaining whole seeds crackle. Then add the ground spices and cook for another two minutes, releasing the flavours.
Add some stock, and stir it all together, making sure you get any tasty oniony bits off the base of the pan.
Add the yoghurt, coriander, and chicken, and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce starts to thicken and reduce. Add the spinach, and give it another 5-10 minutes simmering to come together.
You might want to adjust the thickness with a little water or stock, or by reducing it a bit.
It’s rich and tasty, and I like to serve it quite thick. The sourness is there, but quite muted. It’s coming in from the yoghurt and amchoor. The pickling spices reinforce it a little, and give quite a distinctive taste. The spinach does mute the spices somewhat, adding an earthy note and some thickness, but I think it’s worth it for the body. I’d definitely keep the spinach if you fancy substituting the chicken for lamb (you’ll need a longer cooking time if you do). But I’d cut it if you want to use aubergines and/or courgettes.
I looked at a few recipes when compiling this. These are the ones I can remember:
I’m on the look out for more interesting recipe books for curries and Indian food, so yell in the comments if there’s one you think I should have.