Curry Guide… Saffron

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Saffron is a highly prized spice used for seasoning and flavouring, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern food. The delicate stigmas (or threads) are plucked from the saffron crocus and dried before use. Due to this intensive process to harvest just a few stigmas and the fact that it grows in only a few countries around the world, the cost of saffron is very high. So high, in fact, that the question “what spice is more expensive than gold?” has become a staple of nearly everyone who has leaned against a bar with a beer.

Oh, how we all love to exclaim: “saffron!” very loudly as if we have found the secret to the universe. It’s a ritual that’s made all the more fun because it’s not actually true (gold costs more than £32,000 per kg as compared to about £2,500 per kg of saffron)*

Saffron users are also going to need quite a bit of storage space to match its “weight in gold”. With a standard gold bar, as used by the bullion traders and banks, weighing 12.4kg you’re going to need a whopping 24,800 of these 0.5g packs that are sold by Tesco supermarket (at £2.50 each that would set you back £62,000)*.

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But you’re certainly not going to need anything like that to spice up your food. Just a couple of strands is enough to add a beautiful flavour and aroma to your pilau rices, biryanis and kormas. The best way to use saffron is to put a couple of strands in a small amount of warm water or milk and press gently with the back of a spoon. This will release all the wonders of the spice, which can then be added to your dish.

The high cost of saffron means it is unlikely to be used in many restaurants. They will instead use the cheaper safflower, turmeric or colouring agents to try to mimic the properties of saffron.

Saffron is also know as zaffron or kesar (Hindi) and the largest producer of it is Iran, followed by Greece (where it was first cultivated), Morocco and Kashmir. Saffron has also been used for medicinal purposes and as a dye for clothes, its stigmas creating a colour which would have conferred status on the wearer due to its high cost.

* At 10 January 2019.

Photos: Pexels and Tesco. 

 

 

 

 

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Curry Guide… Goan Cuisine

 

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The food in Goa is quite distinctive from the rest of the India, despite it being one of the smallest states in the country and home to fewer than 1.5 million people. Its location along the western coast of the country, by the Arabian Sea, means seafood features prominently in its cuisine and because its population is largely Christian (Catholic), thanks to just over 450 years of Portuguese occupation, beef and pork are also common, unlike in the rest of India. Chillies are also important in Goan cuisine having been introduced to to the country by the Portuguese in 1498. Curries without chillies, who’d have thought? The Indians used peppers for heat before that.

The most famous Goan dish is Vindaloo, which is a favourite of all heat lovers. Vin means vinegar, thanks to the southern Europeans and the aloo bit is for the amount of garlic in it (the aloo bit is commonly confused as meaning potato because “aloo” means “potato” in Hindi and chunks of the good old spud is in the dish. The traditional dish, cooked with loads of vinegar and pork, is nothing like the curry house dish you’ll get in Britain, although it does share the heat levels.

Other well-known Goan dishes are Xacuti, a dish of chicken or prawns with chilli, white poppy seeds and coconut, and Cafrael, a Portuguese-Indian combination dish which uses a lot of coriander and lime juice and has its roots in Africa.

Photo: Zerohund Wikipedia.

Curry Guide… Korma

IMG_0810The poor old Korma gets a bit of a bad press in Britain. The obsession among some people in eating ever hotter curries means the Korma gets lumped with the “curry novices” tag because it is mild and creamy. And to be fair, the quick and easy Kormas some restaurants turn out have hardly done anything to raise its status. The pale dish that most diners are familiar with uses very little spice – garam masala and perhaps a little turmeric – which is mixed with puréed onions, garlic, cream, cream coconut and ground almonds.

And, yet, a well-cooked Korma can be one of the tastiest dishes on a menu – it was certainly highly regarded by the courts of the Moghuls and is said to have been served at the inauguration of the Taj Mahal. Korma actually refers to a style of cooking where the chef starts by frying ingredients with oil and avoids using adding water until towards the end of the process. The water must be fully evaporated by the end of the cooking. As such there is no reason why a Kormas has to be mild at all – and indeed there are many Kormas which use chillies.


The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide… Coriander

IMG_0651Coriander is one of the most important spices in Indian cooking and is used as whole seeds (brown/cream colour), ground (brown) and fresh leaves (as pictured). The seeds give a slightly sweet flavour while the leaves are pungent and add a distinctive taste to many well-known curries. The leaves can be mixed into curries (the stems give the strongest flavour) or added to the top for garnish (or often both). To release the flavours and aromas of the coriander leaves it is best to bruise them gently with your fingers and tear them into pieces with your hands rather than chopping them up using a knife.


 

The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide… the Chef’s Region

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Do you want a curry that’s cooked to perfection? Next time you go for a spicy meal ask the waiter if the chef would recommend a special dish from the country or region he’s originally from.

Chefs can, of course, cook lots of different dishes from different regions, but they will almost certainly have perfected the dishes from the place where they grew up or learned to cook. Remember, the dish will not necessarily something from the menu under the header “Chef’s recommendations”.


 

The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide… Jalfrezi

Jalfrezi  has become one of the most popular dishes among British diners in Indian restaurants. It means a spicy food (jal or jhal) stir-fry (frezi) so should be dryish and served fresh from the pan, although in many restaurants it’s morphed into a dish with the generic curry house spicy tomato and onion sauce.

IMG_0935The dish was born in West Bengal (now part of Bangladesh) when the chefs, obviously without fridges in the Anglo-Indian days of the Raj, were forced to create dishes using leftover meats and other ingredients before they went to waste. With chicken being easy and quick to cook using the stir-fry method, it soon became the number one choice for Jalfezi.

A classic Jalfrezi uses few spices except cumin seeds, turmeric and sometimes chilli powder, but instead relies on frying up fresh ingredients such as garlic, ginger, chillies, onion, peppers and tomatoes and letting the flavours combine. The only sauce is from the ingredients themselves and the will be a golden colour from the turmeric.


The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide…Whisky and Curry

Fancy a change from beer with your curry? The spices in whisky make it an ideal drink to accompany your favourite spice dish. Try the smoky blend Johnnie Walker Black or the super peaty Islay single malt Laphroaig with Chicken Tikka Masala for instance.

serveimage-3Whisky and curry go together remarkably well. The spicy notes – cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, cloves among others – are central to the aroma and taste of many whiskies while a host of the other tastes you associate with your favourite curry can be found too. In whisky you’ll also find creamy smoothness (Korma dishes), smokiness (Tandoori), sweetness (Dhansak), vanilla (Kulfi), nuttiness (Pasanda), zestiness (Achari) aniseed (Goan fish dishes), as well as saltiness, fruitiness and slight oiliness.

There’s a lot of snobbery associated with whisky (as with wine) but just as you don’t choose your favourite beer with an elaborate performance of swirling, staring and sniffing nor do you have to do so with whisky either. See the boxes for some ideas of Indian dishes and whiskies but don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works for you. A few select whiskies and a selection of dishes from your favourite takeaway can make for a great night at home with friends.

Classic dishes and popular whiskies 

• Butter chicken, with its creamy, tomato base works well with the vanilla smoothness of America’s favourite, Jack Daniel’s. No Coke!

• The strong and powerful smokiness of popular blend Johnnie Walker Black is needed to compete with the extra hot spiciness of Lamb Madras.

• Famous Grouse combines spiciness with sweetness (from its fruit tastes) something that fans of a Prawn Dhansak will recognise and enjoy.

• Biryanis are dry but highly aromatic and need a light and sweet whisky that will not fight the subtle aromas of whole spices used in the dish. Go for a Bell’s.

• Kormas or Pasandas, with their creamy and nutty tastes, both work well with the easy, smoothness of Ireland’s triple-distilled Jameson. Any idea why it’s a favourite for Irish coffees?


Advanced tasting menu

Starter: Onion bhaji and Glenkinchie 10 Year Old. A classic, simple starter of sliced onion and gram flour that deserves a gentle accompaniment and this Edinburgh whisky is light but has a touch of spice and ginger.

Lamb: Lamb Tikka and Caol Ila (pronounced Cal-le-la). The tandoor-cooked lamb needs something as strong and smoky as the single malt Caol Ila (it’s the lead whisky in Johnnie Walker Black) with its hint of pepper and spice.

Chicken: Achari Chicken and Tullamore Dew. This Irish blend offers spicy and lemon flavours, ideal if you like your chicken cooked in tangy pickles.

Vegetable: Mutter Paneer with Wild Turkey. The smoothness of the cheese needs a smooth whisky and this famous Kentucky Bourbon provides that, but also adds hints of spices including cinnamon.


 

The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide… Tandoori Chicken

Tandoori Chicken is a now popular dish across the world but it has its roots in the region that today comprises Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. The chicken is marinated in yoghurt and a mix of tandoori spices, then cooked in a tandoor oven, with the heat from the wood or charcoal giving the dish its trademark smokiness. The edges of the chicken are often slightly charred and the meat is scored (this was the allow the marinade to penetrate deeper).

Tandoori Chicken Gurkha's InnThe red colour of the meat comes from the cayenne pepper, red chilli powder and turmeric in the spice mix, although some chefs add food colouring. In recent years there has been a backlash against the use of this red colouring and the days of Day-Glo looking chicken are slowly becoming a thing of the past.

Tandoori Chicken is a popular starter with chutneys and makes a great snack with a Butter Nan.It also serves the base for a number of curries such as Butter Chicken. The chicken is often served to the table sizzling and for that reason it is sometimes called a Sizzler.


The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide… the Staff Curry

IMG_7178Are you fed up with the same old menu choices when you go out for a curry? Ask the waiter if you can try the Kitchen (or Staff) Curry – the curry the chef will have cooked for the staff to eat when the night’s work is over. This is unlikely to be a dish you will find on the menu; it’s most probably a dish from the home region of the chef and it will be different every day. There’s not always some spare but if there is then most restaurants are usually more than happy for you to try the dish. Obviously if you are eating early you may be out of luck as the Kitchen Curry may not be underway until later in the evening!


 

The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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Curry Guide… Madras

If you walked into a restaurant in Madras (now called Chennai) in India and ordered a “Madras” you’d almost certainly be met with a blank look. It’d be the same as walking into a restaurant in the English capital and asking for a “London”.

The Madras is a British invention and its connotations with “hot” stem from the traders and soldiers who were in the city from the time the British arrived in 1640. Not only do South Indians love spicy food but the city is extremely hot and humid, with temperatures usually over 30°C (86°F) and frequently reaching 40°C (104°F).IMG_1359

Those early ex-pats would have brought back the tastes of India when they returned home with their pots of spice mixes, or early curry powders. As there were no standard for these spice mixes (just as not all curry powders are the same today), it’s possible that the mixes with a little bit extra zing were called “Madras” to acknowledge their extra heat.

The early Indian restaurant owners in Britain carried through this thinking by adding their own hotter mixes or more chilli powder to their standard curry to create the Madras Curry and why today many people are able to order virtually any dish on the menu and ask the chef to make it “Madras hot”.


 

The Spice Card offers savings on curries, including on takeaways at many venues. You can get your Spice Card here.

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