Spice it up to curry flavor

A final vegetable curry dish as prepared by chef Ravin Patel.
A final vegetable curry dish as prepared by chef Ravin Patel.

The kick of spices and slowly simmering onions will wake up any kitchen. It’s a familiar feeling all over the world when folks make curry, the tantalizing and multilayered dish often served like a stew, but that can take other forms as well.

Curry remains a staple of various south Asian countries and beyond, each reflecting the particular influences and homegrown ingredients of a given region. In Thailand, curries might include coconut and kaffir lime leaf and are served over a bed of jasmine rice. In Jamaica, allspice is a key ingredient.

For Ravin Patel, executive chef for The Selland Group of restaurants, growing up in Natomas meant plenty of vegetarian curry for meals. His family hails from Gujarat, a state in western India, where much of the cuisine is meatless and influenced by its Muslim communities. But he’s well-versed in other Indian curries as well, be it the tropical-infused styles of the south, or curries with root vegetables in the cooler regions of north India.

“Curry got out of my blood at one time, but now I just crave it,” said Patel. “It’s the flavors and all the different combinations.”

The good news for home cooks is that with a little prep work, complex and highly aromatic curry dishes can be completed without spending an eternity over the stove. Many stewlike curries can be completed in less than 30 minutes, and make for a hot, satisfying meal with a side of basmati rice and other accompaniments.

Patel is especially fond of chicken tikka masala, the popular dish of chicken chunks in red curry sauce, and a Goan style of dry curry with especially deep flavors. No matter which style you opt to go for, here are Patel’s tips for conquering curry. The accompanying recipes are from chef Patel’s own kitchen.

Going fresh is best: Sure, it’s simple enough to buy pre-packaged curry powders or paste, but making your own mix can take your curry game to another level. Curry powders contain a heady blend of spices, many of which are kitchen staples. Among them: coriander, cinnamon, black pepper, red chili. Buying these spices in powder form is easy enough, but grinding cumin seeds, coriander seeds and others yourself will keep your curry fresh and fragrant. Patel often opts for the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op to buy his spices in bulk.

“All spices have volatile oils in them, so if you grind them fresh and toast them fresh, they’re going to have way better of a flavor,” said Patel. “It’s like dried fruit compared to fresh fruit.”

But in a pinch, Indian grocers have you covered: Local Indian stores carry an array of curry mixes that reflect various regions. So if you’re looking to replicate a spicy red Madras curry, it’s easy enough to seek out a pre-mixed powder blend to cut down on prep time in the kitchen. Keep in mind that many ready-to-go curry powders contain Red 40 food dye. Either way, Patel recommends these shops for buying Indian ingredients:

▪  Indian Groceries (2010 Club Center Drive, No. 170, Sacramento; 916-419-2116)

▪  Natraj Indian Foods (4301 Truxel Road, Sacramento; 916-515-4489)

Time to cook: temperature control is key: Temperature control is a fundamental component of proper cooking, but takes an especially important role with Indian dishes. Caramelizing proteins, be it the browning of chicken, or slowly sweating onions to draw out water and soften them, helps develop the complex flavors of Indian cooking.

Patel constantly adjusts the temperature while building his curry base, which can be used for chicken tikka masala, or ladled over roasted vegetables. The process starts with slowly sweating yellow onions and using the moderate heat to draw oils from clove, a cinnamon stick and other ingredients. Blasting everything in the pan and moving on to the next cooking steps won’t do. On the flip side, cooking proteins too low at first will generate more of a steaming effect than produce a proper browning.

“Most Indian cooking relies heavily on the layering of vegetables, spices, meats and dairy in different stages of cooking,” said Patel. “Thus, the pan’s heat has to be constantly adjusted to achieve the desired technique of transforming raw ingredients into flavorful compounds. If temperature of your pan is not maintained, bitterness from burning the pan will directly influence the foods taste.”

But don’t be afraid to give your chicken and veggies a good char: Most folks don’t have access to a proper tandoor, the cylindrical oven that can reach temperatures of 900 degrees and is a staple of Indian cooking. But a good dose of high heat, be it from a grill or broiler, is necessary to generate a healthy char on your tandoori-style chicken or vegetables, which will soon be slathered with curry.

The char isn’t just for visual effect, but to provide an earthiness that deepens the flavor of this dish. Patel isn’t afraid to give his tandoori chicken thighs a righteous sear on one side, before flipping to complete the cooking. He estimates the chicken is about 70 percent cooked from the high-heat searing, with the remaining 30 percent accomplished after flipping the chicken and letting it cook for a few minutes.

In terms of chicken, Patel prefers to use boneless skinless chicken thighs for their even surface and ability to withstand long cooking times without drying.

“You want the char,” he said. “When it goes through the sauce, it’s going to be that tandoori flavor. Chicken breasts can dry out, but chicken thighs have that dark meat that can give you room for error.”

Consider tomato paste for chicken tikka masala: Crushed tomatoes are more likely to be found in traditional Indian curry dishes, but Patel opts for tomato paste when cooking chicken tikka masala. The tomato paste serves a few different functions, providing a rich red color to the curry, a layer of sweetness and a way to release fond from the bottom of the pan.

“If you use tomato paste and kind of toast it and get it caramelized, it brings out that red, orange-y vibrant color,” said Patel. “The acidity will also pick up all the fond on the bottom. (In India) people won’t use tomato paste. But after a couple years of messing with it, for me, this is the best way to do it.”

Try a dry curry for a change: Most Westerners recognize curry as a saucy dish. But curry takes many forms and approaches in India, whether it’s the vegetarian-based dishes of Gujarat or seafood curries in areas near the Bay of Bengal. In the southern state of Goa, an array of spices and tropical ingredients are used to make styles of dry curry that produce rich dishes without a gravylike approach.

While wet curries can be whipped up fairly quickly once all ingredients are prepped, dry curries take a slow-and-low cooking approach that’s better suited for a lazy Sunday afternoon. A Goan lamb curry has much in common with Mexican carnitas, each being a well-seasoned meat with its fat rendered carefully and connective tissues turning to tasty chunks through slow-cooking methods.

Dry curry methods can also be used with some hearty vegetables, especially cauliflower and red potatoes. Either way, the end result produces a deeply flavored food that requires little accompaniment. Instead of placing over a bed of basmati rice and slathering with sauce, simply scoop up chunks of dry lamb curry with a piece of naan (flatbread) and you’re good to go.

“Because this has such intense flavors, I’d take a little dollop of yogurt and and maybe a little squeeze of fresh lemon over this and eat with naan or rotis (another Indian flatbread),” said Patel. “You want something saucy over rice.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

Tikka masala curry base

Makes 2 quarts of base


Curry spice mix:

1 tablespoon cumin seed (jeera)

1 tablespoon coriander seed (dhaniya)

1 teaspoon fenugreek seed (methi)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper (kali mirchi)

1 tablespoon turmeric powder (haldi)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground (dalchini)

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (mirchi)

For the base:

1/4 cup canola oil

4 bay leaves

4 cloves

1 onion, sliced

1 jalapeño, halved

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 tablespoons chopped ginger

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tomatoes diced

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup heavy cream

16 fluid ounces water (may need more)

1/4 cup picked cilantro leaves

Pinch dried fenugreek leaves (methi)


Grind curry spice mix into a fine powder.

Heat oil in a large pot with bay leaves and cloves; do not burn the leaves. Once the leaves are fragrant, add onions, garlic, and jalapeño and sweat slowly until they are caramelized.

Add spice mix, and tomato paste. Roast the paste until it begins to color ... don’t burn the paste.

Deglaze with both wine and diced tomato and reduce by half while scraping the bottom of the pan to remove the fond.

Add cream, water, cilantro and dried fenugreek leaves, and cook on a low simmer for 30 minutes.

Use a blender to blend the curry smooth.

Adjust seasoning (salt and red chili for heat) and add water for consistency to the desired thickness.

Add either chicken or vegetables from below.

Tandoori chicken thighs

Serves 4-6


3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs

1/2 cup yogurt

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 tablespoons chopped ginger

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin seed (jeera)

1 teaspoon ground coriander seed (dhaniya)

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (kali mirchi)

1 tablespoon turmeric powder (haldi)

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon red chili powder (mirchi)


Place all the ingredients except chicken into a food processor and puree smooth.

In a large bowl, mix the chicken thighs with the marinade and store a minimum of 3 hours or up to 1 day.

Grill the chicken thighs over high heat. A nice char will mimic the taste one achieves in a traditional tandoor.

Rest the chicken pieces, once they are cooked through, for 5-10 minutes. This may be eaten on its own as an appetizer or cut the chicken into 2-inch pieces and add to your curry base. Simmer for 4-8 minutes to heat the chicken through.

Serve with naan and/or rice.

Grilled/roasted vegetables

Serves 4-6


2 cups small cauliflower florets

1 red bell pepper, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 red onion, cut into 2-inch pieces

5 okra, cut into strips (bhindi)

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon ground cumin (jeera)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper (kali mirchi)


Toss the vegetables in a large bowl with remaining ingredients

You can either grill the vegetables on a piece of foil with small holes poked in it or roast them in your oven. The key is to get some color on the vegetables without overcooking them. They will be cooked through in the curry base you have made above. Once the vegetable have nice color, add them to your curry base and simmer for 4-6 minutes.

Serve with traditional naan and/or basmati rice.

Goan lamb curry

South India offers up a huge bounty of amazing spices, tropical fruits and rice paddies as far as the eyes can see. This dish encompasses the spices that foreign nations have traveled thousands of miles to obtain for more than 1,000 years.


1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds (elaichi)

1 teaspoon fennel seed (saunf)

8 cloves (laung)

One 2-inch piece cinnamon (dalchini)

1 teaspoon fenugreek seed (methi)

1/2 teaspoon teaspoon black pepper (kali mirchi)

3 teaspoon teaspoon cumin seed (jeera)

3 teaspoon teaspoon coriander seed (dhaniya)

1/2 teaspoon teaspoon turmeric (haldi)

1 teaspoon red chili powder (mirchi)

1/2 cup canola oil

2 onions, chopped

6 garlic cloves, chopped

One 4-inch piece of ginger grated

2 bay leaves (tejpatta)

1 teaspoon black mustard seed (rai)

2 to 3 pounds lamb shoulder/leg, cut into 2-inch cubes

1/2 cup grated and toasted coconut, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 red onion, cut into petals

1 teaspoon vinegar (apple cider or red wine)

1/2 cup coconut milk


Lemon wedges


Grind all whole spices (listed through coriander seed) very fine. Mix it with turmeric and chili powder and reserve.

Heat a heavy-bottom pan and sweat onions, garlic, ginger, bay leaves and mustard seeds in oil. After some caramelization occurs, add lamb. Continue to cook the lamb and mixing often so the bottom of the pan does not burn. You want to achieve an even browning on all pieces of lamb.

Add the spices, the 1/2 cup shredded coconut, and salt. Continue to stir the mixture for 1-2 minutes so the spices get toasted.

Add red onion petals and sweat for 2-3 minutes. Add vinegar and coconut milk and stir the mixture scraping the bottom of the pan to remove the fond that has occurred.

Cover the pot with a heavy lid and on low heat gently simmer the lamb for one hour. Keep an eye on the lamb and if it begins to dry up add a little water to the mixture.

After an hour taste a piece of lamb and see if it is tender and if salt content is to your liking. Adjust the salt if needed and add a little water if the mixture seems to be getting over-caramelization on the bottom of the pan.

Finish cooking for 10 minutes uncovered. You may need to drain some fat off at this stage.

Garnish with grated coconut and lemon wedge. Enjoy with rice or with any flatbread.

Steamed basmati rice


2 cups basmati rice

3 cups water

3 cardamom pod (elaichi)

2 cloves (laung)

2 star anise (anasphal)

One 1-inch piece cinnamon stick (dalchini)


Rinse the rice very well. The water should run clear.

Add the rice and all remaining ingredients to a pot. Let this sit for 15 minutes at room temperature. Place pot onto a stove and turn the heat to high.

After the rice begins to simmer, give the rice a stir and turn down the heat as low as you can go without the flame going out. Cover the rice with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes.

Once 80-90 percent of the water has been absorbed, turn the heat off and let the rice sit for 10 minutes with the lid closed before serving.