Having no formal culinary training of any kind, the early years of my curry making were overwhelmingly haphazard. I learned how to peel and chop onions and garlic quickly, get them to soften, and then starting adding as much Indian chili powder to the dish as possible while tossing bits of salt, curry powder (which I never use now), garam masala and whatever main ingredient I was using at the time, finishing with cilantro. I love spicy food, but at the time my goal was to make it so hot that nobody else would eat it and I could have it all to myself. That ended when an Indian friend of mine who was a nutritionist told me that I would develop an ulcer in a couple of years if I didn’t stop. I figured if I was out-spicing the Indians, I had gone too far.
Over the years I made a lot more Indian friends who taught me their methods and studied a bit independently. I eventually realized that texture was important to nuances in flavor, and that there are endless layers to any given flavor profile of a curry. This meant that even cutting the onions a certain way could have a profound effect on the dish. I eventually found some of my favorite practices based on trial and error. I’m still honing it in. Even today I’m going to be experimenting with a cauliflower, carrot and chicken korma finished with the seasoning fry I’m about to explain, with the addition of some pan fried cashews. I’ve never quite done it like this before, but I think I’m on to something. It’s a combo of some things I’ve stumbled upon while making a variety of other dishes. What I want to focus on for this post is the base ingredients and process I use for a seasoning fry that has become quite central to much of my cooking.
I’ve discussed the start, with mustard seeds and turmeric. Once the mustard seeds pop, I add cumin seeds, dried red chilies, curry leaves (when I can find them), garlic (cut differently based on the dish) and onions (mostly cut julienne style, but differently based on the dish as well.) Here is the key, are you ready? CARAMELIZE IT! Let me say it again, CARAMELIZE IT! Depending on the stove quality, this process usually involves the ingredients sitting on just over medium heat for half an hour, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning. It takes serious patience. It will start to burn, you just have to feel it to know when it’s enough, feel it in your soul, don’t go grabbing handfuls of burning onions or anything. What this does is add a sweet, smokey tangy flavor to your dish. You can start your dish this way, cooking everything in one pan, or cook this fry separately to be added on top of the main dish once it is done cooking. When you cook it separately and add it on top, the caramelized exterior on the fried ingredients don’t completely mix with the rest of the dish as it would if it was cooked in from the beginning, and they become little sweet, smokey flavor bombs that you stumble upon while you eat. The sweetness comes from the caramelization because you’re essentially drawing out the sugars and burning them a bit. The smokiness is from the fact that are charring it a little. It’s a deadly combo when you factor in the already powerful spice profile of the main dish you’re adding this to.
I’ve noticed that people without well developed palates tend to hate curry for this reason. Even without the extraordinary measures I’ve taken to exploit the layers of flavor in Indian food, there is already an intensity to Indian food that the traditional Western palate isn’t accustomed to, and the surprising affect of that can cause people to think that they don’t like it. It’s similar to when someone doesn’t like a new idea at first simply because they don’t understand it. Some people have a legitimate preference opposed to Indian food, and I respect that, but they can usually articulate why with at least a novice level culinary understanding. Without that, I know that it’s just new and different for them.
So that’s my caramelized awesomeness. Try it with just onions and garlic first, and then start adding other things. You can play around with the process a lot without messing anything up and it changes the flavor a bit each way you do it.