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Indian cooking basics – Making the curry

January 4, 2010
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World over, when someone mentions the word curry, in most cases, the mind brings up images of a spicy Indian dish you once enjoyed with rice or naan. Most non-Indians I’ve met (and even a lot of Indians for that matter) wonder how to get the thick, creamy consistency of curries that Indian restaurants dole out. And most Indian recipes online don’t provide an easy way to achieve that.

This post will teach you how to make an Indian curry base, that can be used in most curry-based recipes. The base is truly versatile in that it can be used for a variety of dishes, including chicken, shrimp, vegetables, cottage cheese, or any other fish or meat, and for a thick or a thin gravy. Mostly used as a base for North Indian dishes, you can also prepare it in advance, freeze it and reuse. It can be stored in the freezer for upto 2 weeks.

How to use the curry paste:

The curry paste, substitutes a mixture of onions, tomatoes, ginger paste & garlic paste, which are cooked in oil, till tender, and which is used as a starting point in most North Indian curry recipes. Depending on the dish you plan on making, begin with heating a tablespoon of ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil. You may need to add whole spices such as cumin seeds, bay leaves, mustard seeds etc after the oil / ghee is heated, depending on the recipe. Reduce heat to medium-low. Thaw the curry paste in advance, if frozen and add to the heated oil / ghee at this point. The following is a rough chart that tells you how much curry paste you need for a recipe:

  • Yogurt-marinated meat recipes: In most Indian recipes, meat is marinated in a mixture of yogurt, salt and dry spices overnight, or for a few hours before cooking. For yogurt based recipes, use about 1/4 cup of the curry paste per person. Yogurt based meat recipes give you a curry that has a lots of gravy. It is usually eaten with some zeera-rice or naan.
  • Seafood and Vegetarian recipes that use coconut milk: Some Indian seafood and even Thai recipes use coconut milk as a base for the curry. If coconut milk will be added at a later stage in the recipe, use about 2 tablespoons of the paste per person you plan to cook for. See OneLifeToEat’s Coconut shrimp curry recipe to see what I mean.
  • Recipes that involve using heavy cream: Recipes for dishes such as Butter-Chicken and Paneer-Makhani use heavy cream at some point in the preparation, to add to the quantity of the curry. Use about 2-3 tablespoons of the curry paste per person here.
  • Recipes that do not use yogurt, coconut milk or heavy cream: In these cases, use about 1/2 cup of the paste per person, if you want lots of gravy. Use 2-3 tablespoons of the paste per person, if you want less gravy.

Once the curry paste is reheated, add all the dry spices and cook well in the paste, on medium to low heat. If you feel the paste is getting too dry, add some water (not more than 2 tbsp at a time). After the spices are well cooked, add the marinated meat or cottage cheese or vegetables to the cooking pot.

At this point, the recipe will usually require you to allow the cooking process to begin. Follow the recipe as directed, from this stage onward.

Special tips:

  • If you fall short of the gravy once you’re done cooking, you can always add some chicken or vegetable stock to the curry to increase the quantity. Reheat the curry with the stock to make sure the spices are well incorporated.
  • If you want extra color in your gravy, add readymade tomato paste to the curry paste, either when blending it, or later, when making the curry.

How to make the curry base:

To make around 2 cups of the curry paste, you will need

  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 4-5 medium sized tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ginger paste
  • 1 tablespoon garlic paste
  • 4 tablespoons canola oil


  • In a large pot, heat 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • When well heated, fry the roughly chopped onions on medium heat, till they are light brown in color

Fry the onions on medium heat

  • When the onions are softened and translucent, add the ginger-garlic paste. Mix well and allow to fry for about 30 seconds
  • Then add the chopped tomatoes

Allow the tomatoes to soften

  • When the tomatoes are soft and well incorporated with the onions, turn off the heat, and empty the contents of the pot in a food processor
  • Add 1/4 cup water to the mixture and blend into a paste
  • Allow to cool. Then store in a box and freeze or keep in the fridge for use within the next day
8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2010 9:25 am

    Thanks for the tips! I’m going to make a lamb/potato curry this morning, and will make your paste as the base.

  2. January 11, 2010 11:36 am

    Glad you liked the post Jenn! How did the curry turn out?

  3. January 16, 2010 7:52 am

    WOW, it was like your post was meant to answer my questions! thanks! I’m so glad you showed me this site – this is super-helpful!!!

    • January 16, 2010 4:15 pm

      @SimplyLife – Glad I could be of help!!

      @Jenn – Thankyou so much for mentioning me in your post! I am happy I could be an inspiration, even if in a small way, for the lamb curry recipe. And I’m quite liking your low-fat fusion version. I’m going to try it out for sure.

  4. Sandeep permalink
    October 1, 2012 3:57 pm

    I m new to cooking ..but using your post …i was able to make real good curry base

  5. Sharmila permalink
    May 16, 2017 12:39 am

    Sabera, very useful tips!! Thank you very much 🙂

    Some recipes ask for few more spices to be ground over and above the basic masala. Can i grind these spices with the 2tbsp or so (as needed by recipe) of frozen masala, and then continue cooking?


  1. Lamb Curry with Potatoes « The Whole Kitchen
  2. Chicken Curry – Restaurant Style « One Life to Eat

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