Chicken Curry and Curry Basics

Chicken Curry and Curry Basics

Is there a dish you ate often as a child, but still love today?

If I had to choose one, I think it would be chicken curry (Mondays and Wednesdays, sometimes Saturdays), braised dry-ish with peas and eaten with white rice (basmati rice, the rice of Kings made a rare appearance when I was growing up in Kwa-Zulu Natal). But mostly, my brother and I ate chicken curry with slices of bread- first white, then brown as I hit my teens, which we considered a sophisticated stance against the daily rice consumed in our house.  I wince at the memory, as I’d hardly eat a curry with bread now. But it did make for fantastic mopping up of gravy and licking of fingers.

Make this simple chicken curry and enjoy with roti, rice or even slices of fresh bread, as you wish.

Curry Basics

Usually the most important elements of basic curry are:

  • onions (fried till translucent or browned in oil)
  • spices/herbs– some for heat(chilli/masala/pepper) and some for depth of flavour (garam masala, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, curry leaves and fresh coriander) & others (turmeric, saffron)
  • main component (chicken, meat, fish/seafood, all of which ginger and garlic are added to or vegetables if a veg curry)
  • Some vegetables (peas, potatoes, green beans, other beans or lentils)
  • Gravy (water/stock and tomatoes, cream, coconut milk. Sometimes a combination of ingredients here)

Make your own Garam Masala

I made a special blend for Yuppie Chef, read about that here.

Nothing compares to a fresh batch of this fragrant blend of spices. Ideally you’d roast the cumin and coriander seeds at 180 degrees Celsius for 8 minutes first (be sure they don’t burn). This is a cheat’s version for a very simple garam masala:

250 ml finely blended coriander seeds (or powder, shop bought)

70 ml  finely blended cumin (or cumin powder)

15 ml ground cloves

30 ml fine black pepper

15 ml  cinnamon powder

5-10 ml of finely ground cardamom (vary according to your taste)

Mix the lot and spoon into glass jars. I store excess spices in the fridge to prevent the volatile oils dispersing. It hasn’t affected the flavour. You can experiment by varying the ratios of these spices to create your own unique blend.

Tempering Spices

Pic courtesy of Wikipedia

This involves quick frying seeds and spices e.g cumin, mustard seeds, fenugreek, fennel, cassia/cinnamon, cloves, and /or chillies in hot oil for a few seconds and either building the dish up form here or adding this heavenly scented oil along with the spices to a curry.

This process releases the precious essential oils of the spices and as you can imagine, intensifies the flavours. Care must be taken, because the spices burn very quickly. A wise chef once shared the 3-second rule with me: count to three, remove from the stove and proceed to the next step immediately.

You won’t temper for every curry or Indian dish, and when you need to do so, the recipe will usually state so clearly or ask you to “fry the spices”. Same thing- just be ultra careful of burning them. Once burnt, they become bitter and will ruin the dish.

Chicken Curry



1/2 large onion, sliced finely

40 ml olive oil

2 medium bay leaves

2 cloves

1 t cumin seeds

1 cinnamon stick, broken in half

2-3 cardamom pods

1 star anise (optional)

1 green chilli, sliced in half

8-10 curry leaves

2- 3 t medium- hot masala (adjust according to taste)

1/2 t turmeric

850g chicken pieces (Pieces with skin on will add more flavour; skinless is a more healthful choice), rinsed and to which 2 tsp ground ginger and garlic paste is added

2 large tomatoes, chopped or 1/2 can chopped tomatoes

6 small potatoes (or 3 large ones cut in chunks), cut in half

1/2 cup peas

2 tsp garam masala

1 and  1/2 cups water

salt to taste


In a large enough pot or saucepan, heat onions in 25 ml oil and fry till soft and translucent.

Add the bay leaves, cumin, cloves, aniseed, cardamom and cinnamon, half the curry leaves and chilli- flash fry on medium-high heat for 3 -4 seconds. Turn heat down to medium.

Add turmeric and  masala and stir, so that it doesn’t burn but that the spice “cooks” for 10 seconds. The masala is your heat or fire component of the dish and only you can determine how much or how little you prefer.

Add chicken and coat in spices, turning. Add remaining oil.  Allow to brown for 10 minutes. Lower heat slightly, if necessary.

Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.

Add potatoes, water and salt to taste and partially cover with a lid.

Cook for 25 – 30 minutes, stirring frequently.

Uncover and cook for 10 minutes or until chicken and potatoes are done and the gravy has thickened. If you prefer a thinner gravy add a little more water and adjust the salt.

Add garam masala, remaining curry leaves and peas during the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Serve with rice, sambals and pickles.

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  1. Ming-Cheau February 23, 2011 at 8:51 am - Reply

    This looks amazing Ishay! Especially on a chilly morning like this in Cape Town! I love it that you make your own blend of spices. I need to stop looking at your recipes now. They’re making me hungry.


  2. polkadotcupcake February 23, 2011 at 9:03 am - Reply

    ooooh this curry has me hankering after winter, I love the smell of garam masala and garlic in the kitchen! send me a bowl, please? I’ll take it with naans, please?

  3. Marisa February 23, 2011 at 9:06 am - Reply

    This curry sounds very accessible and super fragrant. I love mine best with rotis. 🙂

  4. Dawn Jorgensen February 23, 2011 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Now you’ve gone and made me super hungry ;o, so yummy! I’m making this on the weekend!

  5. Alida February 23, 2011 at 10:52 am - Reply

    Delish Ish! (hey, that rhymes!) I just love a good curry and this one seems so simple. I’ve been told by my Indian friends in Durbs that I make curry like them (which is obviously a HUGE compliment for an Afrikaans girl) but I always love to see the pro’s doing it! 🙂

  6. Merlot_Girl February 23, 2011 at 11:34 am - Reply

    Looks divine! I’ll have this with lime pickle

  7. Ishay February 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Hello lovelies- thank you for visiting and for your lovely comments. Let me know how your curry making goes 🙂

  8. Peter February 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Sounds good
    I cant seem to get my curries quite right

  9. Ishay February 27, 2011 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Hi Peter- hope you tried this simple recipe and had some luck.

  10. Charity March 11, 2011 at 2:19 am - Reply

    Hi there!
    I see your recipe but haven’t gotten a chance to try it yet, I am sure it’s great! I will try it soon! I had a question. I have made quite a few different chicken curry recipes and I can’t seem to get the one like what they usually serve in Indian restaurants, you know it’s kinda yellowy-orange in color. Do you know the recipe for that one?? Your help would be much appreciated:) Thanks!

  11. Priya Reddy June 21, 2011 at 10:27 am - Reply

    It’s so strange the way every South African Indian family has a different way of cooking curry – particularly the order in which the different ingredients are added. My grandmother put the chicken in the spices well before adding the tomatoes.
    Anyway, I’m going to give yours a bash tonight. But even if it turns out better, I hope you’ll understand that there’s no way I can make that public knowledge. I might be disowned! 🙂

  12. PinkPolkaDot November 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    Wow,Ishay – your pics are stunning! Where did you get that beautiful plate?

    • Ishay November 27, 2011 at 8:15 pm - Reply

      Hi Polkie. Thank you. The plate is Moroccan, purchased from a store in Kalk Bay.

  13. Chantelle November 28, 2011 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Hey I’m back from London and eager to try out some of your recipes! I will let you know how is goes!

    • Stacey j August 20, 2013 at 12:22 am - Reply

      WOW!!! The best ever!!! So flavour some I really recommend this dish to anyone taste like an authetic durban curry yum!!!

  14. Ana September 15, 2013 at 11:22 pm - Reply

    Sounds fab. What’s hot masala, btw? What’s in it?

    Love the pics, too!

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