How to Make a Simple Curry "Anything"


In the course of cooking Indian food, I've found that many dishes have a great number of similarities. This is a distilled version of what they have in common.

Since not every cook has every ingredient, and there's no accounting for taste, I've put an asterisk (*) next to the ingredients and steps that are required. The rest can be considered optional.

Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cooking Time: 15 Minutes




So, there you have it — a typical "curry" sauce is just (1) onion, garlic, ginger and chiles that have been chopped and fried (2) with spices mixed in and then (3) some mushed tomatoes added.

Indian food is delicious, but don't let it intimidate you — from Rogan Josh (some cardamom) to Madras (lots of chile) to Vindaloo (vinegar and lots of chile) to Tikka Masala (lemon juice and more turmeric), most Indian dishes you're familiar with are just nuanced variants on the above.

update Thanks for the link, Lifehacker!

[1] Canola oil is healthy, has a fairly high smoking point and doesn't alter the flavor of ingredients.
[2] Cumin seeds, especially when roasted or fried, add a nice earthy flavor to the food.
[3] White or yellow onions will work fine, if you have them. You add the onion first, because it has a longer cooking time than garlic, ginger and chiles and, if you added them simultaneously, you'd get undercooked onion or burnt garlic.
[4] Fresh garlic is best. Garlic paste is OK. Try not to use those jars of pre-chopped garlic; they have less flavor.
[5] Use fresh ginger, if possible. Ginger paste is all right. Powdered ginger and jarred, pre-sliced ginger are no good. That pink, Japanese-style pickled ginger couldn't be more wrong for this dish.
[6] I've used Jalepeño, serrano, and Thai birds-eye in curries. Any kind is fine, except habañero, which is too spicy (picture your intestines catching on fire). If you're feeling brave, you can leave the seeds and pith (the white part that holds the seeds together) in.
[7] Ideally, this is dry-roasted and then ground. But a jar of cumin is fine as long as it's not too old (ideally under 6 months since you bought it).
[8] Same as cumin, above, but there's no need to roast.
[9] Paprika doesn't have enough flavor, even if it is, technically, a ground red pepper. I actually use a full teaspoon.
[10] Turmeric adds that beautiful yellow color to Indian dishes. Don't use too much (e.g. a tablespoon) or it will give a pasty texture to the dish. It has a slight scent and flavor, but for some reason, it seems to make Indian food easier to digest. There are various reputed medicinal properties but, from what I gather, you'd have to consume turmeric quite frequently to gain any measurable benefits.
[11] You can use fresh tomatoes, but when you're adding this many other ingredients and cooking thoroughly, it doesn't make as much of a difference as it would in a salsa or pico de gallo. Diced tomatoes will make it slightly chunkier than crushed.
[12] A wide range of things will work here: (already-cooked) chicken, white fish, canned kidney beans, canned chick peas, canned black-eyed peas, string beans, zucchini ... almost anything you have around. Experiment freely, but you'll ideally use something that doesn't require much cooking (sliced zucchini) or has already been cooked (chicken).
[13] Cilantro is a love-it-or-hate-it herb that is used to enhance the flavors of other ingredients. If you cook cilantro, it loses most of its flavor and aroma. Also, some people find it has a gross, soapy taste (it's a genetic thing, not a matter of unfamiliarity), so it's entirely optional.


Below are three of my favorite books on Indian cooking (the fourth is out of print).

Unlike most Indian cookbooks, The Spice is Right is organized into menus, and each menu has a scaled-down version, so you know what foods to pair with each other. Monica Bhide is a cooking instructor (I've taken a class with her) and the recipes do not assume that you are already a guru in the kitchen. Interestingly, and perhaps controversially, she is also creative enough to fuse decidedly American ingredients with Indian ones, e.g. the sweet-spicy-tart cranberry chutney.

The Indian Vegetarian is full of ways to incorporate healthy foods into your diet, without sacrificing flavor. Think you don't like okra or lentils? Think again.

Lastly, The Indian Grocery Store Demystified is like a travel guide to the aisles of your local Indian grocer. But how do you prepare a bitter gourd? (Peel, seed, chop and then add to your curry or daal.) What form do you want to buy your tamarind in? (Concentrate, trust me.) What does brinjal (eggplant) chutney taste like? (Very sweet.) Yeah, it looks a little silly to be walking up and down a store with a guidebook in your hands, but this little (almost pocket-sized) book will provide a window into the fascinating diversity of Indian food.

Indian cookbookref3 Indian cookbookref1 Indian cookbookref2

Comments: How to Make a Simple Curry "Anything"

Nice post:) An added aside - it's REALLY easy to make paneer (soft Indian cheese) and it adds a lot to many vegetable dishes.
Bring 3cups milk to boil. Remove from heat just as milk just starts to bubble. Add juice of 1/2 lemon.
Milk will curdle. Strain curds through cheese cloth. Extract as much liquid from curds as possible. Leave in cheesecloth and press under a very heavy object. (I wrap the whole thing in paper towels, put a cutting board beneath cheese, a cutting board on top of the cheese, and then rest a kitchen-aid mixer on top.)
Press for at least 2 hours.
Cube and add to veggies. YUM.

Posted by: J on April 13, 2005 8:46 AM | permalink

Does the paneer recipe need to be made with full-fat milk or can paneer be made with low-fat or skim milk?

Posted by: Kit Kendrick on April 13, 2005 2:06 PM | permalink

You should always use normal-fat milk for cheese, or it will have bad taste and texture. Just use less of it. Trust me.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 13, 2005 2:36 PM | permalink

I usually use 2% milk and never have a problem. Though my dairy is supplied by a local farm and I think is somewhat of a better product than regular dairy processors.

Posted by: j on April 13, 2005 2:49 PM | permalink

Turmeric should really be part of the "required" list.

Posted by: Nitin Borwankar on April 13, 2005 3:18 PM | permalink


What makes you say that?

Not everyone has turmeric -- that's the main reason I omitted it. (Heck, what kind of curry has zero chilis either?) Also, it's such a small quantity and is mostly for coloring.

I think that if you left out the turmeric, the recipe would taste almost exactly the same.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 13, 2005 3:34 PM | permalink

I'm wondering if you'd happen to have the recipe for another indian sauce that I get frequently and adore.

I have no idea what it's called, but it comes in a variety of dishes I get from various restaurants. The one I like best is named some variation on 'Paneer Butter Masala' (depending on the establishment.) Essentially, cubes of paneer cooked in a tomato-based butter cream sauce.

They can prepare it to any heat level I request (which is nice) but I don't know what seasonings they use, since the sauce is quite smooth and isn't overly flavored with one specific thing.

Posted by: taerin on April 13, 2005 6:07 PM | permalink

Taerin - There is a recipe for Paneer Makhani at
I haven't tried it, but basically a Makhani is butter based rather than yoghurt based dish. And since I'm allergic to yoghurt, most of my Indian cooking is butter or coconut milk curries. Pick a masala (spice mixture) you like and use it with butter and paneer. Experiment and enjoy. :-)

Posted by: Rowan on April 13, 2005 6:33 PM | permalink

A great many Indian dishes also use Gram Masala.

If your looking for some interesting Indian recipies try looking here.

The Lamb saag is especially good.

Posted by: Vicki on April 13, 2005 8:29 PM | permalink


Googling for Makhani Murgh -- -- should get you a ton of recipes. Just leave out the chicken and add in some cubes of paneer towards the end.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 13, 2005 10:09 PM | permalink

Red onions all the way. Yellow onions remind me of Grandpa Simpson.

Posted by: Ben on April 13, 2005 10:57 PM | permalink

Anyone have any favorite palak recipes, to which I could add that paneer too?

Posted by: Doug on April 14, 2005 9:42 AM | permalink

Turmeric is *always* added to indian dishes, not for taste (though sometimes for coloring), but for the health benefits.

The active constituent in turmeric known as curcumin, which is responsible for the following medicinal and therapeutic properties:

* Acts as anti-inflammatory by lowering histamine levels
* Acts as anti-oxidant protecting against free radical damage
* Protects liver from certain toxins
* Improves circulation by inhibiting blood platelets from sticking together

Turmeric has been used to treat the following conditions and symptoms:

* Digestive disorders. Curcumin, one of the active ingredients in turmeric, induces the flow of bile, which breaks down fats. Extracts of turmeric root inhibited gastric secretion and protected against injuries caused by medications such as indomethacin and reserpine in an animal study. Further studies are needed to confirm these effects in humans.
* Arthritis. Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory agent that relieves the aches and pains associated with arthritis.
* Cardiovascular conditions.
* Cancer. Turmeric decreased symptoms of skin cancers and reduced the incidence of chemically caused breast cancer in lab animals.
* Bacterial infection. The herb's volatile oil functions as an external antibiotic, preventing bacterial infection in wounds.

Posted by: vj on April 14, 2005 10:57 AM | permalink

I also recently read an article (Discover or Sci American) that reported on a possible relationship between consumption of turmeric and a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Apparently, it has to do with preventing plaque from forming.
Now where's my korma?

Posted by: Jason on April 14, 2005 11:50 AM | permalink


Korma is delicious but it's bad for you. That thick, creamy sauce is loaded with fat.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 14, 2005 12:07 PM | permalink

Thanks for posting this (fyi;I found it via lifehacker), I made a dish last night using this formula and it turned out fantastic, though a little less spicy than I would have liked. I take it I can just add more chilies or chilipowder to up the heat quotient?

Posted by: kyle on April 14, 2005 12:30 PM | permalink

Thanks, I love abstract recipes. It's cool to find stuff like this out there, a good food howto.

Posted by: mx on April 14, 2005 1:30 PM | permalink


Add more chili powder, more chilis and/or chop the chilis up without removing the seeds.


"Abstract" recipe? I like that. I guess it's more of a recipe template.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 14, 2005 2:49 PM | permalink

Actually, the cumin seeds in hot oil is NOT part of the basic curry. The basic curry is ginger, garlic, onions, cumin powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder and chillies. This base can be cooked in advance, made into a fine paste in a blender and put in the freezer for later use with the "anything" ingredient.

Posted by: Shanky on April 14, 2005 5:41 PM | permalink

Firm tofu (the kind in water, not the kind in the drink box) can be substituted for paneer. It tastes practically the same in a recipe unless the paneer is very, very fresh and sweet (better than you get in even a good Indian restaurant around here).

As far as cilantro goes, I used to hate it (gross and soapy are good words). I still don't like it in Mexican or Italian food, but Indian food seems to mitigate some of the bad flavor, and I actually like it in Thai food. Cilantro when perfectly fresh does not have the bad flavor, but I mean just pulled from the garden fresh.

Posted by: speedwell on April 14, 2005 8:07 PM | permalink


great recipe!!

i've been using a similar recipe for years =D

only i like to fry the "anything", usually chicken or lamb before adding the tomatoes.

cilantro is called coriander in the UK.

how popular is curry in the US then? in the UK its the most popular meals

Posted by: stoo on April 14, 2005 9:20 PM | permalink


It's not nearly as popular as in the UK.

I'd say that the Americanized versions of Mexican and Chinese food are the most common "foreign" cuisines.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 14, 2005 10:07 PM | permalink

cool recipe! could you maybe make one on japanese style curry? i'm so tired of eating pre-packaged "instant" ones. great job.

Posted by: gem on April 15, 2005 4:26 AM | permalink

Great recipe! My boyfriend and I used 2 serrano chiles with the seeds and pith left on and it was very spicy. For spicy food lovers, this is the best option. We both sort of wanted a more "curry" taste to the curry. Would adding more cumin seeds or corriander give us the potent flavor we crave?

Posted by: Emily on April 17, 2005 5:42 PM | permalink


I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I'm not sure how to make it more "curry" ... 1 tbsp each is already a solid amount of cumin and corriander.

To make them more flavorful, buy whole seeds, roast the cumin, and then grind them up.

My second recommendation is, if your grocer has an ethnic food aisle, buy a jar of hot Indian curry paste like the Patak's brand. Stir in a tablespoon or two of it when you add the dry spices.

If it's hotness you're after, add more chile powder or whole chiles.

If you're used to curries that look bright yellow or orange, try mixing in some curry powder.

If you're looking for a thicker curry, mix in some water that's had a tiny bit of cornstarch stirred into it, and let the water evaporate.

Creamier? Add 1/4 cup yogurt, half a can of coconut milk or some heavy cream. Richer? Use butter instead of the oil. (Note: all of these increase the saturated fat quite a bit.)

Also, don't be afraid to drop in some other spices you have laying around the pantry -- cloves and cinnamon are robust enough to stand up to the other flavors used here.

Because "curry" is so vague a term (it runs the gamut from habañero-thyme-allspice Jamaican varieties to coconut-kaffir leaf-lemongrass-chile Thai ones), I encourage experimenting.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on April 17, 2005 7:27 PM | permalink

While deployed a year ago in the Middle East, my driver would take me to a little hole-in-the-wall Bangladeshi restaurant almost every morning for breakfast. Unless they were out of it, we always had gosht torkari (meat curry) and paratha.

The paratha was unlike any I've ever had. My driver said it was a special Bangladeshi paratha eaten only at breakfast. It was very flaky and made with more oil than normal paratha. I haven't seen any paratha recipes that sound right. It was great for soaking up the gosht torkari.

As for the gosht torkari, I'm going to try your recipe with some modifications to make it more Bangladeshi. I know there were cardamom pods, cinnamon and cloves in it, as we had to pick them out sometimes. It was also very hot, so I think I'll add more chilies.

If anyone knows what I'm talking about and has a recipe for either, I would greatly appreciate it if you would give it to me.

I asked, but never could get a recipe from the guys at the resaurant. My driver called it bachelor cooking. It was all men, with no written recipe, and every day it was just a little different, depending on who was cooking and what their taste was for the day.

For those who are familiar with it, the gosht torkari sometimes closely resembled, in taste and color, Cincinnati chili. For those unfamiliar, Cincinnati chili's typical main spices/flavors are garlic, chili powder, allspice, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne pepper, cocoa, Worcestershire sauce, and cider vinegar.

Posted by: Don on January 23, 2007 6:52 PM | permalink


Gosht means lamb. Check these:

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on January 23, 2007 7:54 PM | permalink

I notice that your recipe doesn't really contain a "liquid" ingredient, just spices, aromatics, tomatoes, and "anything" ingredients. Would curry recipes still work without that liquid to turn it into a sauce?

Posted by: Johnson on February 10, 2007 6:56 AM | permalink


Good observation. In this case, the oil and the water from the tomatoes are ample. I like my curries to have the consistency of a thick stew. If you want it watery, you can just add some water or veggie broth.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on February 10, 2007 10:09 AM | permalink

I was wondering if Curry powder the same as Curry?> when asked for ina recipe? Are all curry the same?

Posted by: susan on February 19, 2007 1:56 PM | permalink

My opinion is still what I wrote above: "do not use the yellow supermarket 'curry powder'; that stuff is too bland"

And all curries are *not* the same; there is a huge variety.

What they always have in common is that they are food cooked in a spicy gravy.

That said, some are creamy, some pasty, some watery; some based on tomatoes, some on oil, some on coconut milk. Some are mild, some are spicy and some are extremely hot.

There is a whole world of curry (literally -- you can get amazing varieties in the Caribbean, India and southeast Asia) for you to sample.

Posted by: Joe Grossberg on February 19, 2007 10:13 PM | permalink

Lol.....Its good i recommend it!!

Posted by: Tyler on May 13, 2007 9:33 PM | permalink

I've enjoyed reading the comments above. I was particularly intrigued by the notes on tumeric and its healthful qualities. I had always thought it was just for the color's sake. However, I have recently reached that age where (in America anyway) one develops sensitivity to spicy foods- an anoyance because I truly love the variety of spice flavors and am NOT a bland meat & potatoes kind of person. I have been pleasantly surprised to note that I have no ill effects after eating curried foods. Now, I know why- it's the tumeric. Yay! This is not just an a fluke, but I can safely eat curry, without trepidation. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: Anne Glazier on June 18, 2007 10:14 AM | permalink

I have been looking for a recipe for an indian curry paste that is made in larger quantities to store and strong and hot enough to use maybe 2-3 tablespoons at a time. The one I am trying to replicate is tomato based.
Enjoy your website.

Posted by: Margaret on June 18, 2007 8:40 PM | permalink

my brother in law made this but he cocked it up so it was not very nice so i will make it my self and i bet it will taste great

Posted by: kristian on June 23, 2007 4:49 PM | permalink

For the lady who was looking for a more 'Curry Taste' try adding some Garam Masala powder near the end of cooking, and some salt

Posted by: Mark on August 5, 2007 7:44 PM | permalink

hi, ive never made curry before cnt wait to make it thanks :]

Posted by: soma on September 25, 2007 3:00 AM | permalink

I was part of a research study through University of Illinois doctors who gave me turmeric pills for a month with before and after colonoscopies. Their hypothesis is that curcumin, which is in turmeric, is the reason very few Indian and Pakistanis get colon cancer.
Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Posted by: ann on November 15, 2007 4:30 PM | permalink

Clearly I have found this WAY later than your original posting date but I wanted to thank you anyway since comments are still open. I am a total novice to Indian food - I thought I didn't really like it but luckily tastes can change. Last night I had a delicious butter chicken that I bought pre-cooked and only needed to reheat. I'm interested in trying other Indian dishes and was looking for a very simple, non-intimidating recipe for curry and this sounds perfect. I'm going to re-stock my spices since I'm out of all of them and then I'll be ready to try a Lentil Curry.

Thank you for a nice and easy recipe!