Ameer Kotecha

Curry can be guilt-free (if you know how to make it)

Curry can be guilt-free (if you know how to make it)
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Two of the misconceptions surrounding curry that it consistently struggles to shrug off are one, that it is unhealthy, and two, that it is difficult to make at home. I’ve always found both perplexing.

Turks and Persians must be similarly bemused given the reputation of their archetypal food, the kebab. Yes the late night version, carved from a rotating trunk of greasy lamb with a mini chainsaw and then covered in garlic mayo, is a calorific car crash. But kebab as it was meant to be – meat simply grilled over charcoal and served with rice and salad – is perfectly healthy every day food. And yes a curry house korma is fattening, even before you add in the three poppadoms and pints. But curry made at home can be one of the healthiest of meals: heavy on vegetables, and usually with a tomato-based as opposed to cream-based sauce.

As for being tricky to make, this reputation owes to the long lists of ingredients and obscure sounding spices that can make for daunting reading for the home cook. But, once you have stocked up on the basic larder essentials, curry really is one of the quickest and easiest things to make. An endless repertoire is at your fingertips by following the same basic process and using the same half a dozen spices. All Indian households will have a stainless steel 'dabba' (container) with little metal bowls inside containing the most frequently used spices. Tearful mothers will wave off their kids at the start of uni with a dabba packed in their suitcase. So get your own, – and make a habit of buying your garlic and ginger by the bowlful rather than as cellophane wrapped specimens in the supermarket.

Here is a typical recipe for a Gujarati-style curry to get you started. It was a favourite at my pop-up restaurant in Pimlico. Unlike most curries which get better the longer you leave them to simmer away, this one is best cooked only for fifteen minutes or so as it should be fresh-tasting and full of the vibrant taste of slightly raw ginger and coriander. It is both extremely economical and fully vegan, though you can follow the same process using chicken or fish, amending the cooking time as appropriate.

Image: Ameer Kotecha

Serves 2

What you need

1.5 tablespoons of light olive oil, or sunflower oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 dried red chillies, whole

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Thumb (about 2 inches) of fresh ginger, finely chopped

Half a bottle of good quality passata, around 350g

1 x 400g tin of normal chickpeas

1 x 400g tin of dark brown chickpeas

Half a bag of spinach (130g)

½ teaspoon each of salt, red chilli, turmeric, cumin and coriander powders

A small mug of basmati rice (about 125g)

¾ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon of butter, or olive oil

3 bay leaves

Two big handfuls of finely chopped coriander (stalks and leaves kept separate)

What to do

  1. In a saucepan warm the oil over a medium heat for a few seconds. Add the cumin seeds, mustard seeds and dried red chillies, and fry for a minute until the seeds start to sizzle and pop, then add the finely chopped garlic and ginger (you may find it easiest to whizz them up together in a little food processor – just ensure you end up with small pieces as opposed to a paste). Fry for a couple of minutes.
  2. Add in the finely chopped coriander stalks. Soften for another couple of minutes, stirring regularly so nothing burns.
  3. Add the passata (it’s important to use good quality stuff – something like Cirio).
  4. Add the powdered spices. Let the sauce base simmer away gently on a low heat for 5 minutes to cook out any raw favour in the spice, stirring regularly.
  5. Add the chickpeas, including all the water they’re in. I use half normal white chickpeas and half brown chickpeas which are smaller and nuttier, to give variation in both texture and taste. Add ¾ of a tin of fresh water too (300 ml).
  6. Meanwhile make your rice. Take a mug of rice and wash off the excess starch (the easiest way to do this is to put the rice in your saucepan, and give it a little massage with your fingers under running water before draining.) Add two mugs of boiling water (i.e. one part rice to two parts water). Add a teaspoon of salt, the butter (or olive oil if you want to keep the whole dish vegan) and the bay leaves, scrunched up to release their flavour. Put on a lid and cook on a very low heat for 10-11 minutes until fluffy.
  7. When the rice is 2 minutes from being done, add the spinach to the curry and stir. Check the seasoning – you may need a touch more salt depending on how salty the chickpea water is.
  8. When the spinach is just wilted but still vibrant green, throw in the chopped coriander leaves (keeping back a little for garnishing) and take off the heat. Serve in individual bowls, with the fluffy rice underneath and the curry on top, finished with a sprinkling of coriander.