An old acquaintance of mine once treated me to a homemade curry dinner. He had lived and worked in rural India and recounted how he learned about spices and herbs from the locals as he traveled from village to village. During monsoon season, he said, there was nothing to do but wait out the rains inside the villagers’ houses, and it was then and there he learned to cook curry. Since his time in India, he continued traveling the world, bringing along stashes of his prized Indian spices everywhere he went.
As I watched this acquaintance carefully crushing cardamom pods and coriander, grating fresh ginger and sprinkling ground turmeric, cumin and other spices into his curry, I could tell he was transported back to those monsoon days. With eyes halfway closed, his hands, nose and palate seemed to guide his cooking — a dash here, a sprinkling there, a gentle stir to let the aromas waft and mingle under his nose, now a spoonful to taste… and back to add another pinch of spice…
The dinner was delicious and since then I have come to consider curry one of my most treasured comfort foods — comforting in the cooking as well as in the eating. My curry here uses onion and tomato as its base, with heaps of warming spices, a touch of sweetness, cream and yogurt for added richness, and a spritz of lime juice for a bright finish. Now, keep in mind that I have never been to India myself, and I’m quite sure this is not an authentic version, since I am relying on second-hand memories, collected impressions of savored Indian takeout, and my own palate to guide me. But this is a personal version and a favorite that I will forever think of as monsoon curry.
Monsoon Curry (with Chicken)
- Optional chicken: 3 to 4 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces and marinated in yogurt, lime juice, freshly grated ginger, a dash each of ground turmeric, cumin, coriander and paprika for at least one hour or, even better, overnight.
- 3 Tbs. butter
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 2 large onions, sliced into thin half-rings
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
- Spices (to taste): 1 Tbs. garam masala, 1 Tbs. cumin, 1 Tbs. coriander; 1 teaspoon paprika, 1 teaspoon turmeric; pinch of cloves, dash of freshly ground black pepper, small pinch of chili powder; crushed seeds of 6 cardamom pods (pods removed), 1 stick of cinnamon broken in half, 1 bay leaf
- 2 Tbs. tomato paste
- 1 cup boxed/canned/jarred diced tomatoes with juices
- 1 cup chicken broth (or vegetable broth or water)
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- Optional: spoonful of sugar for extra sweetness
- Optional: dollop of Greek yogurt (or more cream) for extra creaminess
- juice of 1/2 lime
- For serving: lots of fresh cilantro leaves and extra lime wedges, steamed and buttered rice
Directions: In a large sauce pan with high sides, warm the butter and olive oil over low to medium heat. Add the onions and cook down for several minutes, then add the garlic and ginger. When mostly softened and translucent, push the onion mixture to the sides to make a well for the spices. Add the spices and let cook about 2 minutes until intensely fragrant. Mix in with the onions and again make a well in the center of the pan. Add the tomato paste and let it darken and caramelize a bit; then add the tomatoes and broth or water and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to just a simmer and continue simmering uncovered for half an hour to 45 minutes. (Watch and add more liquid if necessary, or cover to retain moisture if it is cooking down too fast).
Meanwhile, if you are adding chicken to the curry, cook the chicken pieces in a separate skillet, browning all sides in a bit of hot oil, in batches if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon stick pieces from the sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning — add more spices and/or salt as necessary. (Optional step here for a smooth consistency: let the sauce cool some, then transfer to a blender and blitz, return to the pan and warm over medium heat.) Add the cooked chicken and any accumulated juices and simmer another 10 minutes or so. Check a chicken piece to ensure it is thoroughly cooked through to the center. Turn down heat and add the cream and stir well. Taste, and add a touch of sugar if needed, and if you want more richness & creaminess, add a dollop of Greek yogurt and/or more cream. Warm through but do not bring to a boil. Turn off the heat once warmed through, and spritz the lime juice over the sauce and stir.
Serve over steamed and buttered basmati rice with a generous sprinkling of fresh cilantro leaves on top and extra lime wedges for garnish.