How to CookIndian

Does Indian Cuisine Have Mother Sauces?

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When Food52 asked me to codify “Indian mother sauces,” I hesitated. The term “mother sauces” refers to the grandes sauces of French cuisine: béchamel, espagnole, velouté, hollandaise, sauce tomate. To impose a Western-centric framework on Indian cuisine is a gross simplification, since Indian cuisine has hundreds of sub-cuisines (Punjabi, Keralan, Goan, for example), and none of those variations really have sauces, per se. “While Indian cooking is as every bit as technical, refined, and complex as any of the ‘celebrated’ cuisines of the world, it just doesn’t approach food the same way,” says Aarti Sequeira, winner of The Next Food Network Star, host of Aarti Party on The Food Network, and author of Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul.

Despite all this, I welcomed the intellectual exercise. I asked myself: instead of “sauces,” does Indian cooking have essential wet curries, or a combination of spices and/or herbs in gravy, that every home cook should know? “I think there are broad categories of curries, and everybody improvises off those basics, which I suppose is the same idea of a ‘mother sauce,’” says Sequeira.

Chicken tikka masala, which is sort-of Indian
Chicken tikka masala, which is sort-of Indian Photo by James Ransom

My list was created in consultation with family, friends, and food professionals, like Sequeira; Chitra Agrawal, author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn and founder of award-winning small-batch Indian condiments line Brooklyn Delhi; and Anupy Singla, author of Indian for Everyone: The Home Cook's Guide to Traditional Favorites. I take full responsibility for the inadequacy and limitations of this list. Nota bene: When I mention the word “curry,” I mean “a gravy-based dish of either meat or vegetables.” There are dry curries as well, but those are beyond the scope of this piece.

Tomato-Based Curry

This curry is most familiar for the casual Indian food consumer, easy to stumble upon in a generic Indian restaurant or while searching for “Indian curry” on the internet. The curry is mild and crowded, but not super-complex, with onion, ginger, garlic, red chilies, and tomatoes. Add spices (like garam masala, coriander, cumin, or turmeric), and aromatics (cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, or cloves) to that. With slight variations, one can make hundreds of curries. “I know I’m supposed to say, as an Indian, that chicken tikka masala isn’t authentic Indian food,” says Sequeira. “But it has roots in butter chicken, which is [authentic].” Singla sells this base as packaged as “Punjabi Masala,” the poster boy for North India’s various regional cuisines. She makes everything from muttar paneer (green peas and paneer) and chana masala (chick peas) using this curry.

Make Your Own Mattar Paneer (Starting with the Cheese)
Make Your Own Mattar Paneer (Starting with the Cheese)

Caramelized Onion–Based Curry

Rogan josh, a staple of Kashmiri cuisine, is made by braising lamb chunks cooked in a gravy of browned onions or shallots, yogurt, garlic, ginger, and whole spices (cloves, bay leaves, cardamom, and cinnamon). This flavor profile is also common in the Sindhi cuisine of my family: my paternal grandmother braised chicken drumsticks in this rich, warm, and spicy curry.

Herb-Based Curry

These curries are usually cilantro and/or mint-based, which gives them a brilliant green color and an herby, earthy flavor. In it, fresh herbs are added to onion, garlic, ginger, spices, and aromatics. (Sensing a pattern yet?) “People are used to eating chimichurri, pesto, and pistou,” says Sequeira. “This is rather similar.” North Indian Hariyali chicken is a Mughlai variation; papletcha hirwa kalwan, or pomfret in green curry, hails from coastal Maharashtra in the West.

The foundations of your favorite curries Photos by Sarah Sherwood, James Ransom

Coconut Milk-Based Curry

These curries, prevalent in southern India, combine onion, garlic, ginger, black mustard seeds, red or green chilies, and curry leaves with coconut milk to create sweet and fragrant dishes. Indian coconut milk–based curries are less soupy and a tad milder than Thai coconut milk–based curries. Mangalorean kori gassi (chicken curry in coconut milk) and Keralan meen moily (fish in coconut milk) are two regional variations.

Yogurt- or Cream-Based Curry

North Indian korma, or meat or vegetables braised with yogurt or cream, onion, garlic, ginger, and whole spices, is a luxurious, very mild, creamy, nutty curry. Kormas was created in imperial kitchens and served to royalty during the Mughal era in India, and chicken korma and navratan korma (literally “nine-gem korma,” referring to the nine vegetables in the curry) are two familiar examples. Agrawal’s majjige huli, or cucumber curry, from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, is “herby, cooling, really flavorful, and goes well as a complement to spicy dishes”—and a unique example of a South Indian yogurt-based curry.

5 Things That Will Make Your Kitchen More Indian
5 Things That Will Make Your Kitchen More Indian

Do you have a favorite Indian curry? Tell us in the comments!