Does Indian Cuisine Have Mother Sauces?

March 16, 2017

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 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.

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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.

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 Photo 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.

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • judy
  • Tad Gregorek
    Tad Gregorek
  • kiran shroff
    kiran shroff
  • Alex Txn
    Alex Txn
  • KB
Pooja is a New Jersey-based writer and editor.


judy November 29, 2017
Lots of fire and passion in these comments. So, as I am not Indian, I will refrain from commenting on the question. I just know that I like all the variety that are Indian sauces. but how much do I really know? I am an American with a British background, so most of my knowledge comes thru that journey. I did enjoy the article though.
Tad G. April 16, 2017
Wherefore the need for a concept called 'mother sauce'?
Does all water taste the same? Is water essential to cooking.?
Are all things called sauces, really so?
You can easily answer your own spurious question.
kiran S. April 13, 2017
I resent the word curry. Indian food is so vast and so varied. It is such a shame to little it down by using a generic word like curry. Every dish of meat or vegetables can be prepared so differently and doesn't necessarily have a "curry" base. I urge all of you to stop using the curry to describe our ancient, complex, and glorious food heritage. Just call it what it is... Indian food
Alex T. April 13, 2017
Korma sauce is the best, and you can use all type of meat and veggies in it.
KB April 12, 2017
NO, to the question. But, North Indian restaurants (even those in India) prepare just 3 "base" sauces ("mother" sauce, if that's what you want to call it) to simplify the prep work taking into account the time factor and convenience factor. This does NOT mean all Indian (including South Indian) curries or gravies are "mother-sauce-based".

"Herb-based", "Onion-based" curries sound funny. There is NO such thing. If so, every country could "classify" many of their dishes that way. South Indian sauces and gravies have NO such concept. All of them start with a LONG list of raw ingredients, a great deal of PREP & complexity and slow cooking (no shortcuts or boxed/canned mixes), which are also the reasons for Indian cuisine being so very unfairly UNPOPULAR in the rest of the world. It also takes good, well-trained and knowledgeable chefs to execute them perfectly. More than half of the restaurants here in the USA could easily be dubbed anywhere from mediocre to awful. The menu is EXTREMELY limited to a few items from the vast ocean of Indian cuisine. I wonder whatever happened to all "other" dishes. If you want to get the TRUE essence of flavors, head straight to India.

Kurma itself has lots of varieties and each one tastes different from the other. Same thing is true of "coconut milk" based gravies of Kerala (a southern state). It is ridiculous joke to "categorize" Indian cuisine (in its broadest sense, by that I mean it is larger than the ocean) to a few "x-based" curries. In fact, CURRY is an abused and over-used word, when it comes to defining Indian cuisine. It is ignorance to dub Indian cuisine as curry.

Every region (not even state) has its own cuisine and has a mark of its own.
Even the restaurants' "mother-sauce-based" curries have DIFFERENT flavors and tastes.
Trying to get Indian cuisine to fit into a particular stereotype with mother sauces is like trying to fit the whole universe into a nutshell.
Oops typo...i meant gravy made with coconut etc
You have left out heavy made with simple coconut,chana dal, red chillies, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, and hing which is predominantly used in South Indian cooking. Also there are many variations to kurma recipes in South India.
scott.finkelstein.5 March 16, 2017
It seems like you could easily create a pretty universal set of mother sauces by focusing on thickening. You'd have your roux sauces (béchamel, veloute), oil emulsions (most tenuous, as I'm not sure if mayos and hollandaise should share a category given their differences in technique), plant matter (tomato, caramelized onion), blitzed herbs (making this one separate because they are broken up mechanically rather than through cooking and usually carry oil rather than water, and your naturally thick and reduced bases (mostly dairy, although coconut milk still works). French cuisine favors the first two, while Indian favors the last two.
scott.finkelstein.5 March 16, 2017
Last three, sorry. Forgot the herb sauces already
Panfusine March 16, 2017
TO expect a set of mother sauces to cover an entire cuisine without taking into account the regional variations is like the proverbial 4 blindfolded men trying to guess what an elephant is by guessing at its various parts. It may work for a small country like france whose cuisine was definitelvely shaped 200 + years ago., but much more complicated to apply the same simplistic formula for a cuisine that traces its history to at least 3000 years, influenced by assimilation, military incursions , geographical differences and last, but not least, religious influences. Classic blind dumbing down to fit into the definition of restaurant fare and its marketing thereof.
Mayukh S. March 17, 2017
Hear hear, Panfusine
Panfusine March 16, 2017
Wonder if the concept of 'mother sauces' arose in French cuisine because of the reason it became to be the most well known cuisine in the world. The cuisine was the side effect of the French revolution when the chefs employed by the nobility found themselves out of a job after the revolution. 200 years of a restaurant oriented profession may have shaped the notion of creating standard bases to which different elements are plated over.
In contrast, by definition, Indian cuisine was and to a large extent continues to be home base, influenced by communities and cultures around which they grew. The first real commercial eating establishments to make a mark in Indian culture was after Partition in 1947, when Enterprising Punjabi refugees flooded in and started the first commercial restaurants, which form the basis of most of the dishes mentioned in the article. Countering this were the 'Udipi Hotels' that sprouted in the early 50's by entrepreneurs from the South Indian state of Karnataka who introduced 'South Indian' food to the Metropolises, creating the stereotype that South Indian food is all about Idli, Dosa, Medu vada, coconut chutney & Sambar.
In about a 100 years, Indian food will probably have a version of 'Mother Sauces', but for now, a classification is nebulous at best. If anything there are coconut - & onion , ginger garlic bases that have a delightful variation imposed upon them by state, religion, community & sub community (caste based perhaps) influences.
Whiteantlers March 17, 2017
Wow. Great, informative post, Panfusine. Thank you.