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Base Curry Sauce

Masala Dabba

There’s an enthusiastic bunch of curryholics over on whose passion is reproducing the kind of curry dishes you’d find in a common-or-garden British Indian Restaurant (BIR). It’s a great website, containing recipes and discussions for the full range of BIR dishes. You name it, it’s there: onion bhajis, chicken tikka masala and saag aloo. The hottest topic on the website, however, has to be the creation of a “base” sauce. Indian restaurants in Britain will not typically cook their sauces (or gravies) freshly with each order. Preparing a curry from scratch would be too time-consuming. Instead, they will use a ladle or two of “base” and add extra ingredients to customise the dish: pre-cooked meat, tomatoes, extra spice, lentils etc. Indian gravies need to cook for some time in order to develop their flavour, but the use of a base sauce allows the restaurant to produce curries in no time at all.

While I admire the dedication of these enthusiasts, I can’t help chuckling at the lengths they go to in order to replicate dishes at home which are designed by restaurants to made as quickly and cheaply as possible. Surely all of their curries must taste the same? For me, the appeal of Indian food is the diversity of dishes available to the adventurous diner. Having said that, I understand the appeal of having producing some sort of basic curry sauce as it allows you to freeze or refrigerate portions for convenience. After a busy day at work, all you need to do is add some chicken or vegetables.

The difference between my curry “base” and those used by “The Star of Bengal” is that my sauce is delicious on it’s own. But you can still customise your curry depending on the style you prefer. Some variations are given in the notes below. This recipe will make enough for 12-15 servings.

I’ve found that when scaling up a dish, it’s not a case of simply multiplying all ingredients by “x”. There are some special considerations. Salt and any of the stronger spices (such as black pepper, chilli and garam masala) need to be added judiciously or else they may dominate the base sauce. I find it best to tread carefully with these items and adjust the flavours before serving the finished dish.


  • 3 tbsp sunflower/groundnut oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1kg onions, chopped (about 4 very large onions)
  • 16 large cloves garlic, peeled
  • 100g root ginger, peeled
  • 2 tbsp of each of the following: ground cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, paprika,
  • 1 tbsp of each of the following: garam masala, dried fenugreek
  • 2 tsp black peppercorns, ground
  • 15 green cardamoms, crushed
  • 10 cloves
  • 4 black cardamoms
  • 6 x 400g canned tomatoes
  • 1 litre water
  • 1½ tsp sea salt


  1. Place a deep cast-iron casserole on the hob and heat the oil and butter. Cook the onions gently for around 30 minutes until soft and brown in colour. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven to 190°C.
  2. Chop finely or grate the garlic cloves and ginger. I use a mini-food processor for this.
  3. When the onions are brown and caramelised, add the garlic and ginger mixture and fry gently for a minute or two until softened. Add the ground spices and one can of tomatoes and stir-fry for a few minutes.
  4. Now remove the casserole from the heat and add the rest of the canned tomatoes. Using a stick blender, whizz the sauce until it’s very smooth.
  5. Put the casserole back on the heat and add the whole spices. Bring back up to a gentle simmer before covering the casserole and putting it in the oven for 1½ hours. I simply turn off the oven and leave the casserole in there overnight. Your reward is a sweet, deeply flavoured sauce. If you require a thinner consistency, just add some extra water.

Variations – Chicken and vegetables work best when de-frosting this curry sauce for a quick evening meal. Lamb and beef will take a little longer to cook, though that depends largely on the cut of meat you’re using. In my opinion, if you prefer meat curries it’s best to cook the sauce from scratch along with the lamb. Here are few of my favourite variations on restaurant and homestyle favourites.

  • Vegetable – my favourite because it’s so easy to prepare. Add two handfuls of diced fresh vegetables for each portion of sauce. Finish the dish with a dollop of natural yoghurt or some lemon juice.
  • Chicken – add a diced chicken fillet to each portion of sauce and simmer very gently until the chicken is cooked. Finish with a good sprinkle of homemade Garam Masala and a handful of chopped fresh coriander.
  • Coconut – you can make a creamy chicken or vegetable curries can by adding 200ml coconut milk 5 minutes before the end of cooking.
  • Saag – Make a spinach and chilli purée. Put 300g of spinach leaves in a large saucepan along with a splash of water. Place a lid on the saucepan and steam until the spinach has wilted down. Transfer the spinach to a liquidizer along with 2 chopped green chillies and any residual water from the spinach. Blend until smooth and add to the curry sauce. Add some dried fenugreek leaves and simmer gently for a few minutes. This makes an excellent addition to a chicken curry.
  • Madras – Add some extra chilli powder and the juice of half a lemon and simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Vindaloo – Adding lots of dried chillies, a slug of red wine vinegar and some cubes of fried potato. (Highly inauthentic of course, but delicious. Try this for a more authentic take on vindaloo.)
  • Dhansak – Add a portion of tarka dal, brown sugar, lemon juice and some cubed pineapple.

Serves 12-15.


Dal for Babies

Coconut Dal


  • unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • 225g red lentils
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 750ml water
  • 1½ tsp low-salt stock granules
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • fresh coriander (optional)
  • black pepper


  1. Rinse the lentils in plenty of cold water and drain in a sieve.
  2. Heat a knob of unsalted butter in a large saucepan. You can add a little oil to stop the butter burning. Add the onion and fry gently for about 10 minutes or until the onion is softened. Add the garlic and spices. Reduce the heat and fry for another minute.
  3. Add the drained lentils and stir to combine. Add the water, tomatoes and stock granules. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat. Simmer gently for around 25 minutes, stirring frequently.
  4. Add a little chopped fresh coriander and black pepper to taste.
  5. Allow to cool, then split into portions and freeze.

Jamie Oliver – Peter’s Lamb Curry

Curry & Rice

I take my hat off to Jamie Oliver. I’ve never tried a recipe of his where I wasn’t pleased with the outcome. His first book, The Naked Chef, has to be one of the most useful cookery books available. It’s worth the price of admission for the bread and pasta recipes alone. The curry recipes in Jamie’s latest books do tend to use ready-made curry pastes for speed and convenience. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I just prefer to make a ruby from scratch.

This recipe is extremely good, worthy of Camelia Panjabi herself. It’s adapted from his second book, “Return of the Naked Chef”. I thought it looked interesting and was tempted enough to try it last weekend. It’s quite similar to the base lamb curry I normally use, so I thought I’d adapt my own recipe to include Jamie’s “fragrant spice mix”. I’ve upped the amount of green cardamom in the recipe, as I love the flavour so much. The whole spices are toasted in a dry frying pan before being finely ground and added to the curry. I also cook the entire dish in the oven rather than cooking the lamb on the hob. It requires less babysitting, as I can just throw the casserole in the oven and forget about it.

Serve with some pilau rice and naan bread. Jamie recommends adding paneer to the curry, a type of Indian cottage cheese. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jamie Oliver recipe without a final flourish of “fresh ‘erbs”, would it?

Masala Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • ½ tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 clove
  • small piece of cinnamon stick
  • 10 green cardamoms

Curry Paste Ingredients

  • thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
  • 2 large red onions, peeled
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 red chillies

The Other Ingredients

  • fresh coriander & fresh mint
  • 2 tablespoons butter/oil
  • 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 300ml stock
  • 1.5kg lamb, diced
  • fresh mint, handful
  • fresh coriander, handful
  • 300ml natural yoghurt
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • lime juice
  • salt and black pepper


  1. Toast the whole spices for a minute or two in a dry frying pan until they release their aroma. Transfer to a spice grinder (or mortar) and leave to cool. Grind to a fine powder and set aside.
  2. Put the curry paste ingredients in a blender and process until you get a smooth paste. Add a little water if you wish.
  3. Heat a large casserole and add the oil/butter. Gently fry the curry paste and ground spices, stirring regularly.  Add the tomatoes and the stock and bring to the boil. Cover the casserole with a lid and place in the oven for one and a half hours to intensify the flavour.
  4. Fry the lamb pieces in the oil until coloured before adding to the curry sauce. Return the casserole to the oven and cook for around 2 hours or until the lamb is tender.
  5. Stir in the chopped fresh coriander and mint, then stir in the yoghurt.  Season to taste with some freshly ground black pepper and some lime juice.

Serves 6.


  • If you’d like take try some different curry recipes, I’d recommend my South Indian Lamb Curry as a good starting point. After that, try your hand at these! 🙂

Lamb Shank Rogan Josh


This is a really special recipe, for those who like putting a bit of love (and time) into their curry-making. The spicing is different to my standard Kashmiri Lamb Rogan Josh recipe because it doesn’t use any shortcuts. I don’t use a lot of pre-ground spice here – I toast the cumin, coriander, fennel, peppercorns and cloves before grinding and adding to the gravy. I use authentic Kashmiri chillies for both their flavour and deep red colour. I use shanks of lamb because traditional Rogan Josh is slow-cooked with the meat bones, giving a very deep flavour and rich consistency. It would make a fantastic dinner party dish.

I also use a whopping 25 green cardamoms in this recipe – no, it’s not a mistake! I love the flavour of cardamom and it’s certainly pushed centre-stage in this recipe. Removing the seeds from the green husk is a bit of “pullaver”, but it’s worth the effort. You could add a little saffron, as it’s very traditional in Rogan Josh, but I find the flavour tends to dominate and I don’t want anything to interfere the other spices. A traditional Rogan Josh will also normally include some yoghurt but I prefer it without as I don’t want a creamy consistency in my RJ. Give it a try, it’s the best curry you’ll ever taste.


  • 4-6 lamb shanks
  • 2 tbsp sunflower/groundnut oil
  • knob of butter
  • 500g onions, chopped (about 3 large onions)
  • 8 cloves  garlic, peeled
  • thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
  • 25 green cardamoms
  • 1 tbsp each of the following: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 2-inch piece of cinnamon (broken into small shards)
  • 5 cloves
  • 500g tomato passata
  • 500ml water
  • 1½ tsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp Kashmiri chili powder (if you can’t find this, replace with 1½ tsp regular chili powder and 2 tsp sweet paprika)
  • 3 whole dried Kashmiri chilies
  • 2 large black cardamom pods
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp garam masala (optional, but make sure it’s homemade!)


  1. Pre-heat the oven to 160°C.
  2. Crush the green cardamoms using a mortar and pestle. Separate the black seeds from the green husk and discard the husk.
  3. Using a dry frying-pan, carefully toast the cardamom seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon shards. Keep the seeds moving in the pan, taking care not to burn them. You’ll know they’re done when they start to release a heady aroma. Transfer to a spice/coffee grinder (or a mortar and pestle) and allow to cool.
  4. Grind the toasted spices to a fine powder.
  5. Place a cast-iron casserole on the hob and heat the oil and butter. Add the lamb shanks and turn until golden on all sides. Remove the shanks using a slotted spoon and set aside.
  6. Add the onions to the residual oil in the casserole and cook gently for around 30 minutes until soft and light brown in colour. Add the garlic and ginger and for another two minutes.
  7. Remove the browned onion mixture from the casserole using a slotted spoon and add to a blender. Add a little water and blend until very smooth.
  8. Put the casserole back on the heat. Add the onion/garlic mixture to the casserole, then add the ground spices, chilli powder, whole dried chillies, black cardamom pods, bay leaves. Fry for a minute before adding the tomato passata and the water. Stir well to combine before returning the lamb shanks to the gravy, along with any juices that have collected. Transfer to the oven and cook for about 3 hours until the meat is very tender, almost falling off the bone.
  9. Before serving, you can spoon off some of the fat which has risen to the top of the sauce, if you wish. You can add a little garam masala to taste also. Best served with plain basmati rice or a Kashmiri pilaff.

Serves 4-6.


  • Of course, you could use good quality stewing lamb in place of the lamb shanks. Use 1.2kg of leg/shoulder and follow the instructions in the Kashmiri Lamb Rogan Josh recipe.
  • This recipe requires a very smooth gravy. For this reason, I’d recommend investing in an electric spice (coffee) grinder. But a mortar and pestle will work well too – it just requires more effort to get a finer textured masala.

Roasted Garam Masala

Garam Masala

Garam Masala is literally translated as “hot spice mix”, but the “hot” refers to the intensity of the spices and the heat they generate in the body – not the pungency we associate with chillis. The spice mix can be bought pre-prepared and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but you should prepare your own if you’re doing a special dish. I’ve only recently started grinding my own garam masala and I’ve found that the difference in flavour is staggering. It is said that commercial garam masala preparations are bulked up with the cheaper and milder spices such as cumin or coriander. The homemade version will be much more intense and fragrant.

You don’t have to toast your spices first but I find it gives a nice roasty flavour and a deeper colour which goes particularly well with lamb curries. I wouldn’t consider making a rogan josh without this. I’ve experimented with various combinations of spices and this is the one I like best. Mamta Gupta of the fantastic Mamta’s Kitchen advises adding black cumin and fennel seeds for a Kashmiri-style garam masala.


  • 5 green cardamoms
  • 3 brown cardamoms
  • 3 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 4 dry bay leaves
  • 3-inch piece of cinnamon stick


Heat a heavy frying pan and gently toast the spices for a minute or two until they start to smell really fragrant. Transfer the toasted spices to a coffe/spice grinder and allow to cool. Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight jar.

Butter Chicken (River Cottage Murgh Makhani)

Indian Spices

This is the best chicken curry I’ve ever tasted and I’ve cooked it quite a few times now.  It’s the curry you make when you want to impress people who won’t eat lamb. Murgh Makhani is the authentic version of the more familiar “chicken tikka masala”. By all accounts, the dish was created at the “Moti Mahal” restaurant in New Delhi as a way to use up the marinade left over in the trays used to prepare chicken tikka. I can’t promise that this recipe is as good as you’d get in the Moti Mahal, but it’s definitely worth trying.

The recipe is adapted slightly from the River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I’ve changed how the chicken tikka is prepared and altered the spicing a little. The result is creamy, rich and spicy. Some plain basmati rice is the only accompaniment you’ll need for this.

Main Ingredients

  • 6 large, free-range chicken breasts
  • 125g butter
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp tomato purée
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 150ml double cream
  • 1 tbsp fenugreek leaves
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper

Tikka Marinade Ingredients

  • 1 tsp salt
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 tsp of the following: chilli powder, sweet paprika
  • 2 tbsp plain yoghurt
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp of the following: ground coriander, ground fenugreek
  • 2 tsp mixed spice (or 1 tsp each of ground cinnamon and ground ginger)
  • 2 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp groundnut/sunflower oil

Tomato Gravy Ingredients

  • 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 175ml water


  1. The first step is to marinade the chicken. Mix the salt, chilli powder and paprika with the lemon juice in a large bowl and add the chicken breasts. cover and leave to marinade for 30 minutes. (If using “bone-in” chicken, make some slashes before adding to the marinade.)
  2. Mix the remaining marinade ingredients and coat the chicken breasts. Cover tightly with cling film and leave overnight.
  3. Put all of the ingredients for the tomato sauce in a saucepan and bring up to a gentle simmer. Leave to simmer for 20 minutes before straining to remove the whole spices. Cover and set aside.
  4. Transfer the chicken pieces, along with it’s marinade, to a roasting tray. Cover the tray with foil and roast in the oven at 220°C for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 200°C and leave for a further 20 minutes.
  5. Now it’s time to complete the dish by making the makhani sauce. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the ground cumin. Sizzle gently for a minute before adding the tomato sauce and simmering for 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients. simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cooked chicken along with it’s sauce/marinade. Simmer until the chicken is warmed through and.

Serves 6.


  • Difference between this version and that contained in the River Cottage Meat Book – Hugh does his marinade in one single step. I prefer to do a two-step (with chilli and lime juice first) because it’s always worked for me and makes the chicken really succulent, even chicken breast fillets. I also use fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi) instead of ground fenugreek as it looks good in the finished dish. Hugh also strains his tomato sauce to give a smoother result but I like a bit more texture in the sauce.

Sambhar Powder

Indian Spices

This is what you need to make the spice mix for sambhar, a South Indian lentil soup. It is supposed to be quite fiery, but reduce the number of chillies if you wish. The ground lentils in the powder will help to thicken the soup slightly.


  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 12 dried red chillies, de-seeded
  • 12 dried curry leaves
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • ¼ tsp asafeotida
  • 3 tsp sunflower oil
  • 3 tsp split black lentils (urad dal)
  • 3 tsp split yellow lentils (toor dal)


  1. Heat a dry frying pan and dry-roast the black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, chillies, peppercorns, coriander seeds and lentils over a gentle heat until lightly toasted. Keep the seeds and lentils moving constantly so that they do nor burn!
  2. Transfer the seeds to a spice grind or mortar and pestle and grind to a fine powder. Add the turmeric, asafeotida and sunflower oil and mix well to combine. This keeps well in a sealed jar for four weeks.