Currying flavour: Three Indian recipes from Masala

Butter chicken in kebab form.
Butter chicken in kebab form. Photo: Issy Croker

Indian food is traditionally served as a full meal with rice and roti accompaniments. It gets its uniquely tantalising appeal from clashing textures and flavours. As a rule of thumb, take the "opposites attract" theory as your starting point. If one dish is cooked with tomatoes, think about pairing it with a yoghurt-based curry. If one dish is explosively spiced, keep another chilli-free to balance things out. 

Murgh makhanwala (butter chicken)

You'll find murgh makhanwala at every north Indian roadside restaurant or dhaba. Skewered chicken tikkas (kebabs) are first grilled and then nestled into a tomato curry laden with butter and double cream, which probably explains the enduring appeal of this dish. Create that sublime, creamy texture here with a dash of soured cream, a chunk of butter and a jar of passata. The curry takes virtually no time to put together, so you can prepare the tikkas in advance and stir them through later.

INGREDIENTS

Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living.
Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living. Photo: Bloomsbury

For the chicken tikkas

6 skinless chicken thigh fillets (about 600g)

2 tbsp Greek-style yoghurt

2.5cm fresh root ginger, finely grated

6 garlic cloves, finely grated

1 tbsp ground coriander

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1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

juice of ½ lemon

½ tsp salt

For the curry

500g tomato passata

4 tbsp sour cream

½ tsp chilli powder

½ tsp salt

½ tsp garam masala

75g salted butter

½ tsp dried fenugreek leaves, soaked in 1 tsp hot water

chopped toasted cashews, to garnish (optional)

METHOD

1. Make the chicken tikkas first. You'll need four wooden or metal skewers; if using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 20 minutes before using to prevent them burning to a crisp. Preheat the grill to high and line a baking sheet with foil.

2. Chop the thighs into cubes (4-6 pieces a thigh) and put into a bowl along with the rest of the tikka ingredients. Mix gently, then thread onto the skewers, leaving a small gap between each piece.

3. Place the skewers evenly spaced on the foil-lined baking tray and grill for 20-25 minutes until lightly charred on top, turning them over halfway through the cooking time.

4. To make the curry, put the passata and sour cream into a heavy-based pan and stir well. Place over a medium heat, adding the chilli powder, salt and garam masala and finally the butter. As it starts bubbling, remove the chicken tikkas from the skewers and tip them into the pan, along with their juices and the soaked fenugreek and its water. If the curry starts hissing and spitting, just loosely cover it with a lid.

5. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes until you see the butter oozing through the curry and the colour deepening to a rich red. Sprinkle with toasted cashews, if you like.

Serves 4

Masala - Macchli curry (simple fish curry) from Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living.

Photo: Issy Croker

Macchli curry (simple fish curry)

Coated in turmeric and chilli and simmered in a gently spiced curry, this is a very simple way to enjoy fish with the lightest of spices. The morning trip to the fish market for the catch of the day remains a firm tradition in India's fish-loving states. In Bengal, for instance, this is traditionally a job for the man of the house, who prides himself on his masterful bargaining with the sellers. Serve the macchli curry with freshly steamed rice.

INGREDIENTS

300-400g snapper, blue-eye or other meaty white fish, cut into chunks

½ tsp ground turmeric

¼ tsp chilli powder

½ tsp salt

2 tbsp oil

1 bay leaf

1 medium onion, chopped

2.5cm fresh root ginger, finely grated

2 garlic cloves, finely grated

2 tbsp tomato puree

250ml (1 cup) hot water

½ tsp garam masala

coriander leaves, to garnish

steamed rice, to serve

METHOD

1. Toss the fish with the turmeric, chilli powder and salt in a bowl and set aside for a few minutes.

2. Pour the oil into a wok or pan placed over a high heat. When it's hot, toss in the spice-coated fish and seal it quickly. Then remove it with a slotted spoon and return it to the bowl it was in originally.

3. Add the bay leaf to the oil in the pan and as it sizzles up, spoon in the onion. Soften the onion for five minutes, then add the ginger and garlic and saute for another minute. Stir through the tomato puree, then add the hot water and bring to the boil, stabbing at the onions from time to time with a wooden spoon to get them to disintegrate.

4. Now, lower the heat to a steady simmer and tip the fish back in, along with the garam masala. Cover and cook for five minutes until the fish is cooked through and oil starts oozing through the surface of the curry. Garnish with a few coriander leaves and serve with steamed rice.

Serves 2-4

Murgh masala (home-style chicken curry)

An ode to the comforting taste of home, every non-vegetarian family has its own version of chicken curry. Back in my fledgling journalism days in Delhi, the apartment caretaker Bahadur would cook this for me after my gruelling night shifts, deviously tweaking it slightly each time. You too can tweak this recipe to your heart's content. I've included a variation below but you can experiment by adding a dash of cream or some almond butter.

INGREDIENTS

4 tbsp oil

pinch of sugar

2 medium onions, finely chopped

5cm fresh root ginger, finely grated

6 garlic cloves, finely grated

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp chilli powder

2 tsp ground coriander

2 tsp ground cumin

4 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped or 1x400g tin chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp Greek-style yoghurt

8 skinless chicken thighs and drumsticks (about 1kg)

375-500ml (1½–2 cups)

hot water

1 tsp garam masala

salt

coriander leaves, to garnish

METHOD

1. Pour the oil into a large non-stick pan and place over a high heat. When it's hot, add the sugar and as it melts add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes, then add the ginger and garlic and sauté for another 5 minutes. If it sticks to the bottom of the pan, add 2 tablespoons hot water and scrape with your spoon to release.

2. Now add the ground spices and tomatoes. Stir for another 5 minutes and then lower the heat to a simmer, adding a dash of hot water if the ingredients start sticking. Cook the spice paste, stabbing the tomatoes and onions, until oil starts to ooze through the surface.

3. After 5 minutes, add the yoghurt and chicken pieces. Whack the heat up to high and seal the chicken, stirring vigorously to combine the spice paste and yoghurt. The raw smell of the spices should have given way to a lovely aroma that makes you very hungry! In another 5 minutes, add 375ml (1½ cups) hot water, lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, for 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked. When it's ready, the chicken meat will separate from the bone and a light film of oil will float to the surface.

4. Lower the heat to a simmer and stir in the garam masala and salt to taste. If you want more curry, add another 125ml (½ cup) hot water. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve.

Variation: For a chicken and spinach curry, when the chicken has been cooking for 15 minutes, drop in 250g chopped fresh spinach or 6 cubes of cooked frozen spinach.

Serves 4-6

This is an edited extract from Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living by Mallika Basu. Photographs by Issy Croker. Published by Bloomsbury ($45).