In a previous article, what is curry house cuisine?, we looked at a history of Indian restaurants outside of India. In this article we look at the techniques and ingredients used in Indian curry houses. These techniques are substantially different to home cooking.
The tricky thing for most Indian restaurants is to adequately cater for the breadth of menu that patrons want. Given the time-consuming nature of many of the dishes it is hard to use traditional methods because of the labour and the potential for wastage. To address this matter, commercial cooks have adopted an assembly-like approach to their cooking. They extensively pre-prepare and minimise the dish finalisation. There is no time for starting from the basics.
Let us deconstruct a typical Indian curry house menu, and look at how they produce the food.
Starters are surprisingly easy for most of these establishments. Tanduri cooking predominates, and that is a very simple food service item, provided you have the prepared ingredients to hand. The basic ingredient, chicken, lamb, fish will have been given its first marinade in the masala, usually with a lot of tanduri food colour, and refrigerated overnight. The next day these items will be transferred into pails of the yoghurt marinade, and again refrigerated overnight. For food service the pails are brought to room temperature, and upon order, the contents are skewered and placed into the oven for quite short cooking periods, then served.
You will not be surprised to know that such pails of tanduri marinated chicken, fish and lamb are available from Indian restaurant supplies and are often used instead of making it in-house.
Non-tanduri starters, such as samosas are often sourced externally, too. What you can generally rely upon, though, are that starters such as pakoras and bhaji are usually made in-house, and are made fresh. Other than making the batter, it is harder to pre-prepare these than make them as required.
It should be noted that purchase of these items is a customary practice in well-to-do families. There are speciality street vendors who do nothing more than make such things. Known as “kabab wallahs” they make amazing starter and snack dishes. Most of these dishes are prepared traditionally, often from centuries-old recipes. Given that this is all they do, they can afford to focus on just producing one or two items.
Main dishes are where curry house practices differ most from home cooking.
What the usual curry house has is a big pot of the house curry base, or sauce. This sauce is used for most of the restaurant’s curries. Each establishment claims their own special recipe, but they are usually quite similar. They are usually made from onion, ginger and garlic, often some other vegetables, carrot and cabbage being common, and a mix of basic spices, including cumin and coriander.
This mix is cooked, pureed to give that smooth restaurant texture, and kept simmering during food service.
This base sauce makes it possible for chefs to cook and plate many curries quickly and easily.
When an order comes in, they heat either the cooking oil or suddhe ghee, which is discussed in what oil to use. Into this goes a measure of the appropriate ground spice masala, which is then fried a little to release flavour.
Each different curry style will have its own masala. These are premixed and ground spices, with different spices and spice ratios for the dish. A korma masala will likely have more cinnamon and cloves, a Madras masala will have more cumin and coriander, and so on. Most of these are made at the mild end of the scale. It will come as no surprise that these spice mixes are available from restaurant supplies, as of course, are industrial quantities of base curry sauces.
Into the oil and masala goes a portion of the curry sauce, the right amount of extra chilli for those who want it medium or hot, and this is mixed and fried. The usually pre-cooked main ingredient is then added, and cooked in the sauce for a while.
This pre-cooking is necessary to keep food preparation times in control. Meat, chicken and many vegetables will take too long to cook in the sauce, so they are pre-cooked. Fish, seafood and paneer do not need this step. Depending on the restaurant, they will pre-cook the items before service, or some will do it as the first step in preparing an order. The indicator is usually the size of the individual pieces. Small pieces of meat, for example, are usually par-boiled to order. Larger pieces will have been prepared earlier.
This pre-cooking is sometimes done just by boiling in water, but some better restaurants will have specific stock mixes for different items. And yes, pre-cooking stocks are available from restaurant suppliers.
Once the dish has almost cooked the finishing ingredient, such as pureed spinach, yoghurt, cream or tomato is added. This is heated through, then put onto the plate, and straight out to the customer, all within the 20-minute limit.
The spices and ingredients may be familiar to most Indian households, but the method is completely different.
Desserts are approached similarly to starters. Very, very few curry houses will make their own desserts, but will source these from specialist dessert suppliers. This approach as I said above is quite common in family cooking too. Dessert and sweet vendors make things that are often beyond the home kitchen.
All of this may be horrifying to a purist, but the fact is that this approach is what has defined the taste of India to many, many people.
The approach enables restaurants to be consistent and enables them to practice good inventory control. Further, the cooking techniques help with food hygiene, and the assembly line technique allows the flexibility to have such an apparent variety of dishes to offer.
This is so important, because the heritage of curry house cooking involves untrained chefs. During the boom period, starting from the 1970s, a substantial number of curry houses were opened by people with no culinary training. Many, of course, were adept cooks in their home environment, but this does not prepare you for commercial-scale cooking. Sourcing pre-made ingredients saved on labour, and helped achieve consistency.
You could read the above, and conclude that running a curry just involves buying in what you need from an Indian restaurant supplier. You can ask your wholesale butcher to trim and dice the meat for you to your specifications. Your fishmonger would do the same.
All you would need to do is peel a vegetable or two, cook some rice, then heat and plate your pre-prepared dishes. Sadly, that is what many quite successful curry houses do. The better ones go to somewhat more trouble, and you will soon learn to identify those. A good guide is the less on the menu, the better the curry house.
The crazy part about this is that it is so much easier to cook curry house dishes than it is to cook traditional dishes. This is of course the complete reverse of Western cooking. You would not be able to prepare some of things you eat in restaurants, both from an equipment and technique perspective.
In conclusion I want to say that what I have described is not universal. It just describes one aspect of commercially prepared food. You will also notice that I have carefully used the word curry house, rather than restaurant. Since Indian food has become popular a degree of sophistication has become clear. There are some exquisite Indian restaurants now that adopt a modern and innovative approach to Indian cuisine. They don’t necessarily offer home-style food, but they are the polar opposite of curry houses.