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The Quintessential North Indian Chicken Curry

Fine Cooking Issue 58
Photo: Scott Phillips
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If you love the curry dishes at Indian restaurants but have always assumed that they would be too complicated to make at home, I’ve got the recipe for you. The dish below is a typical North Indian chicken curry, and it’s a breeze to make. All the ingredients are available at the supermarket, and the whole dish takes only about 50-minutes to cook, start to finish.  

India is a vast, diverse country with many different cuisines, but curries are a unifying element. Yogurt-based curries appear in the west, coconut milk curries are common in coastal areas, and tomato-and-onion–based curries are typical of the north. The common thread in all Indian curries is the method—it’s essentially a braised dish with a flavorful sauce generated by a unique mixture of spices and herbs.  

In tomato-onion curries, the key step is browning the onions. The caramelized onions play two roles: They flavor the curry, and they thicken the sauce as they dissolve partially during cooking. You start them over fairly high heat, stirring to coat them with oil. Then you spread them in an even layer and let them cook undisturbed for a couple of minutes. Then you stir, spread again, and cook for another two minutes. By this point, they’ll have begun to brown, and you can reduce the heat and continue cooking until they become a dark-brown mass. The deeply caramelized onions combine with tomatoes to give this curry a remarkable depth of flavor and rich brown color—the marks of an outstanding chicken curry.  

I serve this dish with basmati rice or Indian bread (for recipes, click on Online Extras), accompanied by lightly spiced vegetables or a yogurt salad, called a raita. To make a basic raita, peel and dice a small cucumber and fold it into a cup of plain yogurt. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a dash of ground cumin.

Key ingredients for North Indian curry

Garam masala
Garam means “warm” and masala means “mixture.” Garam masala is a blend of several warming, aromatic spices that are-ground together and used in many North Indian dishes (South Indian cuisine has its own signature combination of spices). Cooks tend to use garam masala judiciously, and they typically add it toward the end of cooking to infuse a dish with its distinctive aroma. A basic garam masala might consist of ground coriander seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, and green cardamom. Proportions vary. Some Indian families have been handing down their garam masala recipe for generations, guarding it as they would a family heirloom. Indian markets usually carry several brands of garam masala, and McCormick now offers it in its line of specialty spices. Buy it in small quantities. Kept in a cool, dark place, it will stay fragrant for up to four months.

Tomato, onion, ginger, and garlic masala
The combination of tomatoes, onions, ginger, and garlic forms the base of many North Indian curries. As the vegetables brown and break down, they turn into a dark, richly flavored mass that acts as a natural thickener for the curry. This mixture, or masala, is the background canvas for hundreds of curries; by simply changing the combination of spices or other ingredients, the cook can take the curry in whatever direction she or he wants.

Plain yogurt
Indian cooks rely on yogurt for its marvelous ability to marinate meats, keep foods moist during lengthy cooking, make curries creamy, and deliver tangy flavor. In this curry recipe, it’s being used primarily for flavor and texture.

In the tropical climate of India, most families still make their own yogurt, setting it out at night for use the next day. Homemade yogurt is more tangy and refreshing, but if they choose to buy it, they’ll pick a plain or lightly sweetened yogurt.

Books on Indian cooking

To learn more about Indian cooking, Suneeta Vaswani recommends the following books: Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, and The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi.


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