Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Spice it up

The word ‘curry’ originates from the Tamil word ‘kari’, which is a simple dish made with spices cooked in oil, and using a sauce made from onions, garlic and ginger. It’s one of the oldest dishes in the world. One of the earliest known recipes for meat in a similar spicy sauce appeared on tablets found near Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, dating from about 1700BC. I think it’s fair to say that most of us love a good curry – in London alone there are more Indian restaurants than in either Mumbai or Delhi.

I am fortunate enough to have grown up with an Asian background, as my Grandfather was Burmese. He used to cook the most amazing fish curries for us. Years ago he even cooked for a Maharaja and other visiting dignitaries in London!

It’s more fun to make a good curry from scratch, rather than use those ready-made jars and powders that can be found in every supermarket. The aroma of a fresh spice mixture on the go has to be one of the best smells in any galley. There are so many different curries, ranging from mild to hot, hot, hot from all over the world, giving us a vast range of options for different occasions. As long as you’re well stocked with a good range of spices, you’ll be fine.

My suggestion is that you start off buying the specific spices needed to cook a selected dish, and then slowly increase your spice rack as the need arises. Like a painter’s palette, start with primary colours – the better known curry spices – and work up from this, building your palette (and palate!) with growing confidence with each new recipe. Good ones to start with are garam masala, cumin, coriander, turmeric and ginger. And you’ll need chillies for heat. In this way you’ll not only learn to create classic Asian dishes, but in time – by adding your own inspiration – create your own masterpieces.

It’s always better to buy your spices whole, and then grind them as needed with an electric coffee grinder or a pestle and mortar. The more freshly ground the spices, the better the flavour. If you only have space for ground ones, then buy them in small quantities. I’ve put together a Burmese ‘Jungle’ curry paste, which can be used with many different things. It’s absolutely ideal with any fish that you may have in your freezer, caught on a crossing, or you can rub it over any meat as a spicy grill ‘marinade’. I recommend freezing whatever paste you don’t use in an ice cube tray and putting the frozen cubes into a zip-lock. They will keep for about three months this way. Some of the ingredients may sound unusual, but they can all be found at
any good Asian supermarket.

Traditionally, dishes made with this paste should all be eaten by hand – but good luck getting your guests to part with their silver cutlery! I know it’s slipped from headlines, but Burma’s political situation is still causing much suffering for the Burmese people, and much anguish for their friends and relatives outside Burma. To find out what you can do to help, please visit
Thanks, Jono

Grandad’s Jungle Curry Paste
Makes 300 ml

2-6 green or red bird’s-eye chillies, finely chopped
1 green or red pepper, deseeded and chopped
6 shallots
4 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons chopped lemongrass
2 teaspoons chopped galangal or ginger
2 teaspoons chopped coriander root
2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
1 teaspoon roasted shrimp paste
Half teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppers
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon tamarind water
2 tablespoons groundnut oil

>Blend all the ingredients until smooth >Transfer the paste
to a saucepan >Bring to the boil and simmer, stirring often
for 4-6 minutes >Add coconut milk for a milder dish

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