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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