When it gets cold outside, I automatically start craving a fragrant, comforting curry. Whether it’s a weekend curry simmering slowly over the fire in my trusty three-legged potjie pot (similar to a Dutch oven), or a quick, weeknight version thrown together on the hob, it always hits the spot.
The base of a good curry boils down to just three things: a well-balanced spice blend; the right quantities of onion, garlic and ginger added at just the right time, and something to give your sauce some substance. The rest you can make up as you go along.
Once you master these three basic steps, you’re free to become far more creative and inventive with your curries.
Curry 101: Mastering the basics
Step 1: Choose the right amount and blend of spices.
If you’re still getting to know your spices and what they can do for a curry, start with a reputable spice blend or two. But if you’re up for experimenting, creating the balance is like blending perfume. You begin with some good, solid base notes – earthy flavours like cumin, coriander and turmeric – and then add sweeter, lighter flavours like fennel, cardamom, star anise and cinnamon.
Once you have settled on your flavours, be generous: buy bigger packets so that you can add abundantly and to taste.
Step 2: Decide how you want to cook your onions, ginger and garlic.
This is the holy trinity of curries, much like a mirepoix (onion, celery and carrot) in French cuisine. The more you use, the punchier your curry will be, but the duration and speed of cooking also makes a big difference.
Low and slow will allow your onions, garlic and ginger to colour and caramelise, and will ultimately lend a soft, sweet flavour to your dish. A faster sauté will give your curry a lighter colour but stronger flavour.
Step 3: Decide on your sauce
The sauce is usually one, or a combination, of the following things: pureed or canned tomatoes, spinach, cream, coconut milk or yogurt, and sometimes a blend of soaked nuts (like cashews) blitzed with a little water to form a milk. But you don’t have to get fancy: you can simply use water or stock if you prefer.
Beef bunny chow
When I make this curry in my potjie, I like to layer in quartered potatoes, roughly chopped carrots and a couple of baby onions. Get creative! You could add sweet potatoes, canned butter beans or pumpkin, or greens like beans or peas.
1.5kg stewing beef chunks or beef shin
2 tbsp (30ml) Packo Masala
Salt and pepper
Coconut oil, for frying
1 tsp (5ml) mustard seeds
2 tsp (5ml) cumin seeds
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 cm ginger, grated
2 long, mild chillies, chopped
1 tsp (5ml) Robertsons Turmeric
1 kit (30ml) Nice ‘n Spicy Spice Madras beef curry
1 can (400g) All Gold chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp (30ml) tomato paste
2 cups (500ml) water
1 can (400g) coconut milk
Fresh coriander for serving
1-2 loaves of white bread or bread rolls
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Season the meat with masala spice and seasoning. Heat some oil in a heavy-based, oven-proof pot and brown the meat in batches. Remove meat and set aside.
- Toss in the mustard and cumin seeds and cook until they splutter.
- Add the onions and cook over medium heat until they become soft and golden. Add the ginger and garlic and fry until fragrant but not coloured.
- Return the meat to the pot along with all the other spices and stir to coat the meat well.
- Tip in the tomatoes, puree and water, and season well. Cover with a lid and braise in the oven for 90 minutes, checking occasionally. If the curry becomes dry, add some more water.
- After 90 minutes, add ¾ of the coconut milk and cook for 20 minutes longer.
- Stir through the remaining coconut milk and coriander.
- Cut the bread loaf into 4 chunks and remove a little of the soft crumb to create a hollow. Spoon in some curry, add a dollop of yoghurt and serve with the fluffy bit from inside to dip. Alternatively, use bread rolls.
Make a quick sambal of chopped red onion, tomato and coriander dressed in lemon or lime juice.
Quick Durban chicken curry
Sometimes you just want a curry in a hurry! Ready-made curry sauce makes this possible. We stock Pakco’s and Denny Curry Cook–In Sauces in a range of flavours.
For this recipe, I use chicken thighs because they are a little more forgiving than breasts when it comes to curry. However, if you prefer to use chicken breasts, adjust your cooking time so that they don’t become dry.
800g skinless, deboned chicken thighs, cut into chunks
2 tbsp (30ml) Amina’s All Purpose Curry Paste
Salt and milled pepper
Vegetable oil for coating and frying
1 onion, sliced
2 tbsp (30ml) crushed ginger
1 tbsp (15ml) crushed garlic
1 sachet (400g) Pakco Durban Curry Cook-in-Sauce
2-3 tbsp (30-45ml) Mrs Ball’s Chutney
Handful of sliced chillis and coriander
Toasted rotis, samp or rice
Sambals like Miami Hot Mango Atchar
- Toss the chicken pieces, curry paste and seasoning in a bowl with a glug of oil. Massage the paste into the chicken so that the meat is well coated.
- Heat some more oil in a saucepan and sauté the chicken in batches until well coloured.
- Toss in the onions and cook until they begin to soften. Add the ginger and garlic and fry for another minute until they become fragrant.
- Pour over the Pakco sauce, Mrs Ball’s Chutney and about 2/3 of a cup of water.
- Simmer the curry for about 30 minutes, adding a little more water if it starts to get dry. Once the meat feels tender and the sauce has reduced substantially, remove it from the heat.
- Toast your rotis (if using) in a dry pan and spoon over the chicken curry.
- Scatter with chilli, coriander and red onion, and serve with a dollop of yoghurt.
If you are using a potjie pot over the coals, you could opt for whole chicken pieces on the bone and layer over some root veggies and greens.
A korma’s most common characteristic is that it has a creamy sauce, usually dairy based, and that it contains nuts (traditionally cashews). The nuts may be whole or ground, and they add both flavour and body to the sauce. Instead of chickpeas, you can use butterbeans or even something meatier like chicken.
2 onions, peeled and quartered
4 cm ginger, sliced into coins
3 cloves garlic
2-3 tbsp (30-45ml) Cape Herb & Spice Korma Curry Spice
Large pinch Robertsons Ground Cinnamon
6 cardamom pods, crushed
2 bay leaves
3-4 heaped tbsp of cashew or almond flour
3 cans (400g each) canned chickpeas, drained
1-2 tsp (5-10ml) sugar
2 cups (500ml) full cream yoghurt
Large handful of coriander
- Place the onions, ginger and garlic in a blender and blitz until finely chopped.
- Heat a large glug of oil in a heavy-based saucepan and fry the onion mixture slowly, over low heat, until dark golden and fragrant.
- Stir through the korma curry spice, cinnamon, cardamom pods, bay leaves and sugar, and stir-fry for a few minutes until fragrant.
- Add a cup of water, the nut flour and chickpeas, and simmer until the water has evaporated.
- Stir through the yoghurt and allow the pot to heat gently. Don’t let it boil as this could split the yoghurt.
- Season well and scatter over the coriander.
- Serve with naan bread or rotis.
- To make this recipe vegan, substitute the yoghurt for coconut cream.
- Add butternut or sweet potato chunks to bulk it up and make it go further.