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Is Indian Food Healthy?

I’m noticing a trend towards “healthy” Indian restaurants in London. I’m delighted, of course. The likes of Sonita’s Kitchen , Healthy indian Cooking in London’s Camden Lock certainly deserves every one of its 4.5 Google-stars.

The marketing, however, implies that normal Indian food is less than healthy. But India is a country of half a billion vegetarians. A country where through Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing tradition, ordinary folk are intimately familiar with the medicinal properties of their food. And Indian food is regional and as varied as anything accross any two European countries. No, the trouble is exclusively with the British curry’s heavy-handed use of oil.

The Great “British” Indian Curry

British curries are based on the northern Indian style of cooking, particularly that from the Punjab. And dishes from this region base their flavour not only on spices but also onions. What gives these “curries” their sweetness? Onions. Their thickness? Onions. Their defining taste? Onions again. But onions need oil to perform their curry-magic and here-in lies the problem – and the solution.

To illustrate how you can turn onions into that indefinable curry aroma I’m going to share with you “the secret to that take-away curry taste” as expounded by Julian Voigt in his excellent book of the same title. The secret is the  base-gravy which is the standard in every British restaurant-curry  – except tarka-dal, apparently.  It uses extraordinarily generous amounts of onions – and also copious amounts of oil. (The excessive use of sugar and salt is ubiquitous in all but the best restaurants of all genres, so we won’t go there!)

Few will deny the delectable taste of a “British” curry, and many of us will consider a night down the local tandoori worth it once in a while. But is there a healthier way to achieve this alchemy of turning the humble onion into the lofty curry? Surely so. After all, people across Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are enjoying it right now. Let’s take a look

restaurant curry gravy for indian curries
Restaurant Curry Base-Gravy
This is a most basic of gravies using the minimum of condiments. It is based on the restaurant style but is my own deliberately scaled down version to illustrate that magical alchemy from the onions which create the fundamental taste of this unique Anglo-Indian approach to cooking
Onion gravy
  • peeled and quartered onions to fill a 3 litre pot
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/2 small white cabbage
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 green chillies or 1tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tbs garlic-ginger paste
  • 1 small bunch fresh coriander
  • 1/4 litre neutral oil - enough to cover the onions
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp unsmoked paprika
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek powder
  • 1 tsp salt
Transform the onions
  • Fill a 3-litre pot with the quartered onions, roughly chopped carrot, cabbage, bell-pepper, coriander, chilli and ginger-garlic paste.
  • Pour enough oil into the pot to cover the onions. Place a well-fitting lid tighly on and place on a medium flame for 45 minutes
  • At this state there should be bubbling and cooking of the onions. Turrn down the heat and simmer, without removing the lid for a furtheer 45 mins to an hour
  • Even if the onions feel soft when pricked with a fork or knife, you have to rely on your nose to tell you when the onions are ready. If you've eaten curry you'll know the smell when it happens
Add the spices
  • Add all the spices, salt and tomatoes. Cook for a further 30 mins until the oil has separated from the mixture. This separation is important since it means your spices are cooked and tempered. If there is no oil floating on top of the mixture the spices will taste raw. Continue to cook until this happens
  • Cool, then add a cup-full of water. Use a hand-held blender to create a smooth sauce, adding water to achieve a consistency like cream
  • Use as a base for your favourite restaurant curry

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