FOOD & DRINK / Variations on a classical composition: A curry is like Indian music, Camellia Panjabi tells Michael Bateman, open to improvisation and with spices as the notes. This week, she selects her favourite recipes from the country's main regions

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WE ALL know that there's more to making a curry than stirring in the curry powder. But the secrets of Indian cuisine do not yield themselves up so easily. Without instruction from Indian teachers, is there any hope for keen home cooks?

The book we introduced last week, Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India (Kyle Cathie, pounds 20), offers real guidance. The recipes, gathered together from a dozen main regions of India, have been tested in India and in Britain to allow for the availability of ingredients and even variations in cooking equipment (aluminium pans give shorter cooking times for onions, they discovered).

Camellia Panjabi has also analysed Indian cooking, and last week revealed how flavours and textures are achieved. For texture Indian cooks use thickening agents such as fried onions, coconut milk, dal (lentils), nuts and seeds - never flour. For colour, they use turmeric, saffron and fresh herbs; for souring, tamarind pulp, yoghurt, vinegar, lime juice, mango juice; for taste, cumin and coriander, cinnamon and cloves, fennel seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds; for aroma, garam masala (mixed sweet spices, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom); and for varying heat, dried or fresh green chillies.

This week we publish a selection of Camellia Panjabi's own favourite recipes. But first, some tips from her about cooking Indian-style.

There is not a rigid or classic recipe for any curry dish, she says, and compares Indian cooking to their classical music, handed down through generations without a written code, open to improvisation. She defines curry as a dish with a spiced gravy, usually, but not essentially, eaten with rice. In many parts of India it's eaten with home-made roti (flat bread) made of wheat or millet.

There is always an essential ingredient: meat, fowl, eggs, a single vegetable like potatoes, brinjal (aubergine), mushrooms, or a mixture of vegetables such as peas, diced carrots and french beans or potatoes and cauliflower.

Indian cuisine is no different from French in its dependence on good stock as the basis of all sauces. When Indians use meat, chicken or fish they always leave it on the bone to give a robust flavour, and cuts include a few gelatinous pieces as well to give body. For extra body the shankbone, including the marrow, is used. Most curries start with the heating of cooking fat; traditionally this was clarified butter, ghee, but in western India this has been superseded by the healthier sunflower or corn oil.

The use of spices is the key to making curries, Camellia Panjabi says, and you need to understand the complex effect of each one and its part in providing colour, texture, aroma and flavour. 'Spices are like musical notes. All curries, like melodies, are composed of the same spices. For example, if a dish contains a lot of red chilli and is combined with coconut milk, then the red- hot flavour is balanced with sweetness. When the proportion of coconut is higher than the chilli the result is a delightful symphony of flavours.'

The choice of spices makes the sum total of taste and flavours. But the sequence in which they are put in the pot is important, and so is the length of time each spice is fried to release its flavour (frying releases the flavour of the spice more strongly than plain cooking). If all spices are added simultaneously some will burn in a few seconds, and some will remain uncooked. For example, you need to fry coriander powder for about six minutes, but cumin for less than a minute.

An essential technique is bhuna, when spices are stir-fried in medium-hot fat or oil, in continual contact with the base of the pan, stirring so that they don't burn. Alternatively, onions are fried first and, when their moisture has been driven off, the freshly ground spices are added in the right sequence. From this point onwards, most Indian curry dishes are cooked very slowly, often with the lid on, to concentrate flavours.

MAIN COURSES

CHICKEN PISTACHIO

(DELHI)

I first ate this dish long ago in a small roadside restaurant in the heart of Bombay's bazaar area. Years later I met the cook, who originally comes from a family of professional wedding caterers near the Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi. It is very delicate in taste, and attractive to look at with its creamy light green colour. The taste depends on the quality of pistachios used - the brighter green, the better. In India, gourmets use Peshwari pistachios for their taste and bright colour. This dish deserves white meat, so breast of chicken is best.

Serves 4

2 1/4 lb/1kg chicken

4oz/100g shelled pistachio nuts, unsalted

8 green chillies

5 tablespoons single cream

3 tablespoons full-fat yoghurt

2 onions, chopped

oil

1in chunk of fresh ginger, chopped

6 plump garlic cloves

3/4 teaspoon garam masala powder

1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder

2 cinnamon or bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 1/4 teaspoons fennel seeds

1 tomato, chopped

salt

1 teaspoon green cardamom powder

2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves

1 1/4 pint/750ml stock

(made from chicken trimmings)

Cut the chicken into pieces. Boil the pistachios for 10 minutes in 8fl oz/ 250ml water. Remove from the heat, drain and leave to cool. Rub the nuts with your fingers to remove the skin. Grind the pistachios with four of the green chillies and cream and reduce to paste in a blender.

Whisk the yoghurt well with a fork.

Fry the onions in the oil in a cooking pot until lightly coloured. Add the ginger, garlic, garam masala and turmeric powders, cinnamon or bay leaves, white pepper and fennel seeds and fry for two minutes. Add the pistachio mixture and fry for two minutes.

Add the chicken and saute for five minutes. Add the tomato, yoghurt, remaining chillies and salt to taste. Add the chicken stock (or water) and cook until done, about 15-20 minutes depending on the size of chicken pieces. Sprinkle with cardamom powder and coriander leaves before serving.

CHICKEN CHETTINAD

(CHETTINAD)

Chettinad is the region in southern Tamil Nadu from where the Chettiars, the trader and mercantile community of the region, originate. They have traded with South-east Asia for more than 1,000 years. In AD 1077 the Chola King Kulottunga sent an embassy of 72 merchants to the Chinese court. One can see this influence in these curries, in the use of star anise, a popular spice in Chinese cooking.

Chettinad cuisine is hot. The chicken is always cut in very small pieces on the bone - about 12 pieces from a chicken. This is an ideal dish to make using chicken drumsticks.

Serves 5

2 teaspoons poppy seeds

1/2 lb/225g fresh (or desiccated) coconut

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2in/5cm cinnamon stick

3 green cardamoms

4 cloves

3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

3/4 teaspoon garam masala powder

3 tablespoons oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely chopped

2 teaspoons garlic, finely chopped

1/2 star anise

3 teaspoons red chilli powder

2 1/2 lb/1.1kg chicken, cut as preferred

3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

salt

juice of 1/2 lime

a few curry leaves

2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves

On a griddle or in a crepe pan, toast the poppy seeds for a few minutes until light brown. Crush with a rolling pin, then soak in water for 15 minutes. Grind the coconut, poppy and fennel seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and turmeric to make a fine paste.

Heat the oil in a large shallow cooking pot and saute the onion for 20 minutes until lightly coloured. Add the ginger and garlic; two minutes later add the star anise and red chilli powder, followed by the spice paste and two tablespoons of water. Saute for five minutes, adding a little more water if required.

Add the chicken and saute for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes. When the chicken has absorbed the tomato juice, add 3/4 pint/400ml water and salt to taste and mix well. Cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes or until the chicken is tender. When it is almost done add the lime juice and curry leaves. Just before serving sprinkle with the coriander leaves.

CHICKEN DOPIAZA

(BENGAL)

Dopiaza is a popular dish in Indian restaurants outside India. Do means two and piaz means onions in Hindi, and the term describes a dish using twice the normal proportion of onions, or in which onions are used twice in the cooking process. Dopiaza is an Indian Muslim dish and Bengal has a tradition of fine Muslim cooking. It is a region where people are particular about their food and many Bengali men cook superbly. This is Batuk Bhattacherya's recipe and is the finest dopiaza I have ever tasted. At home Bhattacherya cooks chicken dishes and his wife makes all the fish ones.

Serves 4

2 1/2 1b/1.25kg small roasting chicken

9 medium onions

8 small potatoes (optional)

3 teaspoons red chilli powder

4fl oz/100ml full-fat yoghurt

3 tablespoons oil

6 plump garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 cinnamon or bay leaves

2 tablespoons ginger puree

2in/5cm cinnamon stick

6 cardamoms

1 1/2 teaspoons peppercorns

12 cloves

3 whole red chillies

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

3/4 teaspoon sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala powder

salt

Cut the chicken into eight pieces on the bone. Cut three of the onions in half. Chop two of the other onions coarsely. Extract the juice from the remaining four onions by grating them and squeezing out the juice through a cheesecloth, discarding the pulp. Peel the potatoes, if using. Mix the chilli powder to a paste with a little water. Whisk the yoghurt.

Heat the oil in a heavy pan and fry the chopped onions until light brown. Remove, drain on kitchen paper and set aside. In the same oil, fry the garlic, bay leaves and, after a couple of minutes, add the cinnamon and cardamoms. Two minutes later, add the peppercorns, cloves and red chillies.

After 30 seconds, add the ginger puree, chilli paste and turmeric and stir continuously. Add the chicken, potatoes and tomatoes, followed by the butter, yoghurt and sugar. Cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring so that the spices do not stick to the bottom of the pan and add a little water if necessary.

Now add the onion halves, followed by the onion juice and salt to taste. Stir for two to three minutes. Then transfer to a baking dish and cook in the oven, preheated to 150C/325F/Gas Mark 3 and cook for 20-25 minutes. When the chicken and potatoes are done, add half the fried onions and sprinkle over the garam masala powder. Sprinkle with fried onions before serving.

FISH CURRY (GOA)

This is a particular favourite in Bombay. It is one of the best fish curries of India, and has appeal both for its taste as well as its bright orangey-red colour. This colour comes from the combination of Kashmiri-type chillies and a liberal use of turmeric, and also by virtue of the tamarind being ground and fried with the turmeric, which deepens its colour. It is quite simple to make, but it is important to follow the quantities given exactly.

The Goa curry is judged by its texture as well as colour and taste. The curry should be thin and smooth; to achieve this the spices and coconut are traditionally ground several times on a grinding stone. You would have to grind it in a food processor for about 10 minutes for it to be satin-smooth. If your processor gets overheated, wait for it to cool, then continue.

The favourite fish in India for use in curry is the pomfret, a flat fish. You can use halibut, cod, prawns, or, surprisingly, salmon.

Serves 4-6

1 3/4 lb/800g fish, cut into pieces on or off the bone

juice of 1/2 lime

3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

salt

8 red chillies, Kashmiri-type, or ordinary red

chillies and 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

4oz/100g fresh (or desiccated) coconut

3 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 small onions, 1 chopped, 1 finely sliced

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons tamarind pulp

2 tablespoons oil

1 tomato, grated or pureed

3 green chillies, slit lengthways

a few okra (optional)

Marinate the fish in a mixture of the lime juice, a pinch of the turmeric powder and a pinch of salt diluted in a little water, for 30 minutes. Then rinse. Soak the red chillies in water for 15 minutes. Strain and reserve the soaking water. In a blender or food processor, grind the chillies (and paprika, if used), coconut, coriander seeds, the chopped onion, cumin seeds, the remaining turmeric powder, the garlic and one teaspoon tamarind pulp to make a really fine and smooth paste. Add a little of the chilli soaking water to facilitate grinding, which will take up to 10 minutes for a really smooth paste. Do not let the blender get too hot.

Soak the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of tamarind in about 4fl oz/100ml water for 15 minutes. Strain and reserve the soaking water.

Heat the oil in a wide, shallow cooking pot and fry the sliced onion until it is lightly coloured - about seven minutes. Add the spice paste and saute over a moderate heat for six to seven minutes, adding a little water if necessary. The paste will become a deep orange if the chilli is good quality. When the oil begins to separate from the spices in the form of little globules on the surface of the paste, add 1 3/4 pint/1 litre water. Add the tomato, green chillies, okra and salt to taste and cook for six minutes. Taste and see if you wish to add the reserved tamarind water. Add the fish and cook until done. Sprinkle with coriander when serving.

CAULIFLOWER AND POTATO CURRY

(MANGALORE)

In India the cauliflower is usually cooked as a dry vegetable, rarely as a curry. However on the west coast of India, around Mangalore, the Hindu community do make a curry with it (called a gashi), combining it with large pieces of potato. Serve with white rice.

Serves 2

6oz/150g chopped fresh coconut

(or can of coconut milk)

7-8 tablespoons oil

10oz/300g onions, chopped

5 dried red chillies

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

1/8 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/8 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

1in/2 1/2 cm cinnamon stick

4 peppercorns

2 cloves

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon paprika powder

1 heaped teaspoon tamarind

3/4 in chunk of ginger, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

7oz/200g potatoes,

peeled and chopped into large pieces

salt, to taste

14oz/400g cauliflower, cut into large florets

Soak 4oz/100g coconut in 3/4 pint/ 400ml warm water. Leave for half an hour then put into a blender. Strain and keep the coconut milk.

In a non-stick frying pan heat one tablespoon oil and saute 2oz/50g chopped coconut for 2-3 minutes. Set aside. Heat another tablespoon oil and saute half the onions for 2-3 minutes. Set aside. Heat one more tablespoon of oil and saute the red chillies, coriander, mustard, fenugreek and cumin seeds, cinnamon, peppercorns and cloves for half a minute, and remove.

Now put the coconut, onions and spices into a blender. Add the turmeric, paprika and tamarind and 4fl oz/100ml water and grind to a smooth paste. In a saucepan, heat four tablespoons oil and saute the ginger and garlic for 15 seconds, followed by the balance of the chopped onions for about 7-8 minutes, until translucent. Add the spice paste, saute for two minutes, then add a little water and the potatoes and saute for about five minutes. Sprinkle in the salt (about one teaspoon). Add 4fl oz/100ml water, close the lid and cook for 6-7 minutes. Now add the cauliflower, 3/4 pint/400ml coconut milk and cook until done.

WATERMELON CURRY

(RAJASTHAN)

In the summer, temperatures in the arid desert region of Rajasthan exceed 100F and before foodstuffs from other regions were easily available, the Rajasthani had to rely on what was locally available. Watermelons were one of the few fruits available in the summer, and are used to make an interesting semi-dry curry.

The flavour should be hot, sweet and sour, hence the large amount of chilli powder - and Rajasthan chilli is pungent. You can substitute paprika, which is milder. Quite interesting to eat with rice, or as a side dish.

Serves 2, or 4 as a side dish

1/4 large watermelon

1 1/2 teaspoons red chilli powder

a pinch of turmeric powder

1/2 teaspoon coriander powder

1 teaspoon garlic puree

salt

2 tablespoons oil

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

2-3 teaspoons lime or lemon juice

sugar to taste (optional)

Cut up the watermelon and remove the seeds, then peel. Take a slice to blend and make juice. Add the chilli, turmeric and coriander powders, garlic puree and salt, to taste. Chop the rest of the watermelon into 1 1/2 in/4cm cubes.

Heat the oil in a wok and add the cumin seeds and within 20 seconds add the juice. Lower the heat and simmer for five minutes or so, so that the spices cook completely and the liquid is reduced by a third. If using sugar, add it now, then add the lime or lemon juice and cook for one minute.

Add the chopped watermelon and cook over a low heat for 3-4 minutes, gently tossing it until all the pieces are covered in the spice mixture.

AUBERGINE CURRY

(KERALA)

A homestyle curry from Kerala. The traditional way of cooking anything with tamarind is in a terracotta dish. This curry is hot with a sour tang to it. Very tasty, it is best with lemon or dill rice, and fried South Indian papadams.

Serves 4

1 1/2 oz/40g tamarind pulp

1lb/500g baby aubergines

salt

1/2 fresh coconut, grated,

or 5oz/125g desiccated coconut

6 whole red chillies

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

4 tablespoons oil

1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped

8-10 curry leaves

14oz/400g onions, chopped

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves

Soak the tamarind in 4fl oz/100ml hot water for at least 30 minutes. Make 2 incisions, like a cross, halfway up each aubergine. Cut off the stems. Soak in water with a pinch of salt for 15 minutes, to reduce the natural bitterness.

On a heated griddle toast the coconut for 5-6 minutes, then add the chillies and coriander seeds and toast for 2-3 minutes. Add the cumin and toast for one minute. Put into a small grinder and grind to a paste, adding a little water. Heat the oil in a cooking pot and add the mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the garlic, ginger and curry leaves, then the onions and turmeric. After 25 minutes add the spice paste and saute for a further 10-15 minutes, adding a little water if the spices stick.

Add 3/4 pint/400ml water, stir well, add salt to taste (about 1 1/4 teaspoons) and the aubergines and cover with the lid. After 15 minutes add the tamarind water (after squeezing the tamarind and straining it). Cook until the aubergines are tender, then remove from the heat and sprinkle with coriander leaves when serving.

SIDE DISHES RAITAS

Raitas are simple to make. Essentially the yoghurt has to be whipped or whisked. You can make it with full-fat or reduced-fat yoghurt. If making it with full-fat yoghurt, add a little water to thin it.

Season with salt, pepper and cumin powder. The add a little sugar if desired, especially if the yoghurt is slightly sour. This is the basic raita recipe. Then you can add chopped coriander leaves if you wish, and sprinkle with red chilli powder or paprika. This is done in the serving bowl because it looks attractive as well as giving a slightly pungent taste. You can add other ingredients of your choice. Chopped cucumber or potato or tomato or onion are popular. Other commonly used ingredients in raita are boiled white pumpkin, boild baby aubergines, blanched strips of spinach which can also be combined with raisins or dates and bhoondi - tiny balls of fried besan or gram flour. Raitas are very cooling, so Indians avoid them in the evenings in winter.

CUCUMBER RAITA

8fl oz/250ml full-fat yoghurt

2oz/50g cucumber or more,

peeled and finely chopped

salt and pepper

1/8 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon of sugar

a pinch of paprika powder

1 teaspoon coriander leaves, finely chopped

Whisk the yoghurt. Add a little water if desired. Add the cucumber, salt, pepper, cumin powder and sugar. Mix well. Put into a serving bowl and garnish with paprika and coriander leaves.

CHUTNEYS

The word chutney comes from the word chaat-na - to lick. So chutney is something that is finger-licking good. It can be made by grinding fresh ingredients or by cooking some ingredients. Chutneys are always vegetarian, and have a sour tang: Indians believe that eating something sour at every meal is good for health.

Tomato chutney is made all over India. Purely herb chutneys are eaten in west and north India. Coconut chutneys are popular in southern India and herb and coconut in western India. Mint and yoghurt is eaten in the Punjab and Delhi. Walnut chutney is eaten in Kashmir and groundnut chutney in Andhra Pradesh. Chutney keeps, covered in a fridge, for two days.

GREEN CHUTNEY WITH COCONUT

3 tablespoons coriander leaves

1 tablespoon mint leaves

3oz/75g grated fresh (or desiccated) coconut

2 green chillies

1 garlic clove

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon caster sugar

2 teaspoons lime juice

Grind together all the ingredients except the lime juice in a blender, without adding any water. When the mixture is ground to a smooth paste, remove and put into a small serving bowl. Add the lime juice and mix well with a teaspoon. Serve with all coconut-based curries and dhansak.

(Photographs omitted)

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