International cooking for the youthful malcontent.

Basic Curry

Basic Curry

Some days – a few every month – I’m not really in the mood for doing a lot of work to put food on the table. I still want something good, but uncomplicated and containing only a few, simple ingredients. Some days, that means grilled cheese sandwiches, and other days this recipe for simple chicken curry. “Curry is simple and not a lot of work?”, I hear you ask, incredulous. Well, it’s true – or more true than false.

After all, what is curry? That’s a question that has many different answers, depending on who you ask, and in what context. I’m not going to get into the origins of the term, but most people have a general idea of what constitutes, say, a chicken curry: chicken, and some kind of sauce or gravy with a lot of spices in it. Sounds about right? That’s not much a recipe though, so let’s go a bit deeper – what makes up the sauce? A liquid, usually – like water. Onions. Maybe some garlic and ginger, and spices, of course. If there are onions, we’ll need an oil to cook them in. Otherwise, that’s it. Oil, onion, meat, liquid, spices.

Technically, it can be even simpler than that, but with these basic ingredients, there are many, many curries we can prepare. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Poem to Curry, he describes a curry made by frying onions in butter, adding cubes of veal, whole milk and tablespoons of curry powder. This recipe is not from a poem – it’s based on a recipe from Anuja’s handwritten recipe book – a simple chicken curry recipe from her mother’s kitchen (a fine kitchen indeed – I never leave with an empty stomach) streamlined slightly to suit our kitchen.


  • 400-500g boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1″ inch pieces, or equivalent skinless, bone-in chicken pieces
  • 1 small to medium onion (around 2 1/2″ in diameter), cut in half and sliced into thin half-rings
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1″ by 1/2″ by 1/2″ piece of peeled ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp North Indian garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup hot water

Serve with: steamed rice

What you will need: chef’s knife and cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, fry or saute pan with a lid, utensil for stirring (flat-edged is preferred), a few small bowls for organization


  1. Prepare the ingredients: finely chop the garlic and ginger, and place them aside together. Slice the onion into half-rings, and set them aside. Measure out the garam masala, cayenne and 1/2 tsp of salt in a small bowl.
  2. Pour the oil into your frying pan, and turn the heat to medium (5-6 on my dial). Give it 5 minutes or so to heat up.
  3. Toss the onions into the pan, and give them a quick stir to spread them out. Fry them for about 5 minutes, or until the onions have softened, and lightly browned on the edges.
  4. Add the garlic and ginger to the pan, and stir them into the onions. Cook the whole mixture for another 2-4 minutes or until the garlic and ginger smells sweet, instead of raw.
  5. Add the spice blend to the pan and give it a quick stir to coat the onions evenly. Cook it for about 20 seconds or so, until the spices become highly aromatic in the hot oil.
  6. Add the chicken pieces to the pan. Cook these until sealed (ie. all/most of the pink colour on the outside is gone), stirring them a few times to get them evenly coloured.
  7. Add the water to the pan. It will sizzle quite a bit in the beginning, but try to use the flat-edge of your utensil to scrape any browned bits of spices/onion/chicken from the bottom of the pan (this is “deglazing”) and then let the water come to a boil. This should only take a minute or two at most.
  8. Put the lid on the pot, and turn the heat down to medium-low (2-3 on my dial). Let it simmer (gently bubbling) for 15 minutes or so.
  9. There’s no more steps. Take the lid off, turn the heat off and eat. Add chopped cilantro, if you’d like.

It’s as simple as that. Most of the flavour comes from the masala. With that in mind, varying the masala can give a completely different character to the curry. Anuja’s mother typically uses a masala that’s labeled “chicken masala” and I have no idea what’s in it. The North Indian masala I’ve listed here is a fairly simple blend, and is used in a lot of the recipes on my blog, but I’ve worked up a special blend of spices to use in my own kitchen, and in this curry recipe.

The VG House Blend:

  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp seeds from green cardamom pods
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cinnamon sticks (3″ long)
  • 4 blades of mace
  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri chili powder

Put all of the ingredients (except the turmeric and Kashmiri powder) into a dry frying pan (no oil, etc) and roast the spices in the same method described in my post for North Indian Garam Masala. Once they’re toasted and fragrant, spread them out on a plate to cool for about 15-20 minutes. Once cooled, grind them in a spice grinder, then add the turmeric and Kashmiri chili powder and blend them all together.

Use this masala in place of the masala listed above, and continue the recipe as described, and you’ll get a different flavour, and colour entirely (the mace, turmeric and Kashmiri powder will make a nice orange colour). I also like to add a splash of milk or cream at the end of the cooking process (step 8) – about 1/4 cup or less – and perhaps garnishing with a bit of mint instead of coriander.

I add all of this because I’d like to finish by encouraging everyone to experiment with their own variations here. I made this spice blend on a whim, with no real guidelines (just threw together my favourite spices and a few hints of the original recipe (Anuja’s recipe includes frying mustard seeds, for eg. when I have omitted that step) and it turned out great. There was, of course, a risk of it being terrible, but a bit of trial and error can yield you a surprising, and personal, blend of spices and ingredients.

Try it out!

Nutritional Information (according to the Recipe Calculator)

Based on 4 servings: 216 cal, 11.6 g of fat (1.7 g saturated fat), 4.5 g carbohydrates, 22.7 g protein, see calculator for expanded information


One response

  1. This was a great recipe. I will cook it again!

    February 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm

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