Indian sauces

To those of us who did not grow up with Indian cuisine, Indian sauce recipes seem friendlier when they are explained in terms of their basic components.

Chicken in creamy tomato sauce and chicken korma with freshly baked bread and basmati rice (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Chicken in creamy tomato sauce and chicken korma with freshly baked bread and basmati rice
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Sauce is my favorite food. To me, sauces enriched with crème fraîche and butter are the soul of French cuisine, and it is the rich, flavorful sauces that draw me to Indian food.
To those of us who did not grow up with Indian cuisine, Indian sauce recipes seem friendlier when they are explained in terms of their basic components.
“For cooking lamb or chicken, I begin with onion base,” chef Ali (Lipon Chowdhury), of The Indian Kitchen in Los Angeles, told us last week. “It is made of sautéed onions with cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, whole cloves and bay leaves.” He said he uses the onion base to make yellow curry sauce, too.
Tomato base is another useful preparation in the Indian kitchen. Chef Ali, whose restaurant specializes in the cooking of the region of Punjab in northern India, uses it in his makhani sauce, a cream-enriched tomato curry sauce that he flavors with garlic roasted in ghee (clarified butter) and with Indian spices. Makhani sauce is often served with chicken; he also serves it with tofu.
Indian tomato base is similar to Italian tomato sauce, wrote Rinku Bhattacharya, author of Spices & Seasons, except that it’s flavored with fresh ginger. To make her tomato base, she sautés chopped onions in oil, adds grated ginger and minced garlic followed by chopped tomatoes and salt, and cooks the mixture until it thickens.
Neelam Batra, author of The Indian Vegetarian, has a simple way to prepare makhani sauce. First she cooks tomatoes with ginger, garlic and fresh hot peppers to a thick sauce, and then purees it. She finishes the sauce with sautéed ginger, paprika and other spices, and cream or milk. (See recipe.)
Rich, gently spiced korma sauce is a signature dish of north central India, and there are many ways to achieve its creamy texture. Some, like Batra, use a combination of ground nuts and yogurt cooked with caramelized onions. Others enrich their korma sauce with cream. Chef Ali prepares his sauce with less ghee and cream than in traditional recipes and uses coconut cream instead. A garnish of cashews and raisins gives his korma dishes a festive touch.
Nandita Godbole, author of A Dozen Ways to Celebrate, makes a korma sauce that is vegan/parve and relatively easy to prepare. It is composed of sautéed onions cooked with coconut milk and a touch of ginger, garlic and spice. (See recipe for vegetable korma.)
Hot peppers add flavor to many Indian curries. To enjoy these spicy dishes, people eat them with rice or bread, and often yogurt as well. But not all Indian chili-flavored sauces are hot. For her red chili lamb, Bhattacharya combines mild Kashmiri red chili powder, which is only slightly hotter than paprika, with hot dried red chilies to achieve the right balance. (See recipe.)
“In America, sauces are generally served on the side, or drizzled lightly over cooked foods, but Indians almost never serve them as ‘stand alones,’” wrote Batra. “Most Indian sauces are made as a base in which vegetables, paneer cheese, beans or various types of meats are cooked. Gentle simmering of various foods in the sauces enriches both the foods and the sauce.
“There is nothing quite as satisfying as sopping up the last drops of a sauce,” wrote Batra. “Indians especially enjoy this practice, using any remaining bread or rice as their sponge.”
And so do we!
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
This sauce has “universal appeal,” wrote Neelam Batra, “and makes a stunning presentation when served with contrasting white, yellow and green vegetables,” such as baby yellow squash and zucchini, cauliflower florets and peas. For a main dish, you can simmer cooked chicken, fish or steamed vegetables in the sauce for a few minutes.
Batra wrote that the sauce is also good on its own as a dip for bite-size pieces of flatbread or parathas (which are similar to malawah), or can be added to pasta, meatloaf or grilled fish.
You might find dried fenugreek (hilbe) leaves at the shuk or in spice shops or Indian markets. If you can’t find them, omit them or substitute finely chopped celery leaves. Use nondairy milk for serving the sauce with chicken in a kosher meal.
The sauce keeps in the refrigerator for 4 or 5 days or in the freezer for 2 or 3 months. “Freeze it in ice cube trays or small soufflé cups and you have individual servings on hand all the time,” wrote Batra. You can reheat it in a microwave oven or in a saucepan over medium heat, and add 2 or 3 tablespoons milk if the sauce is too thick.
Makes about 4 cups
❖ 5 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped (1.1 to 1.35 kg. or 2½ to 3 lb.)
❖ 5 small fresh hot peppers, halved and seeded
❖ 2 tsp. minced garlic
❖ 1 Tbsp. peeled and minced fresh ginger
❖ 2 bay leaves
❖ 4 cups water
❖ 3 Tbsp. melted clarified butter or vegetable oil
❖ A 2.5-cm. (1-in.) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into julienne (very thin) strips
❖ 2 Tbsp. ground coriander
❖ ½ tsp. ground green cardamom seeds
❖ 2 tsp. dried fenugreek (hilbe) leaves
❖ 1½ tsp. garam masala (Indian spice blend – see note in next recipe), divided
❖ 2 tsp. paprika
❖ 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
❖ ½ cup heavy cream or milk
Place tomatoes, peppers, garlic, minced ginger, bay leaves and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer until tomatoes are completely mushy, 15 to 20 minutes. Pass sauce through a food mill; or remove bay leaves and puree sauce in a blender or food processor. Return the smooth sauce to the saucepan.
Heat butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and fry ginger strips, stirring, until golden. Add coriander, cardamom, fenugreek leaves and 1 teaspoon garam masala.
Turn off heat, stir in paprika, and quickly add mixture to the smooth tomato sauce.
Stir in salt and cream and simmer over low heat for 5 to 7 minutes. If sauce seems too thick, add a little milk or water to get the desired consistency.
At serving time, sprinkle with remaining ½ teaspoon garam masala.
This vegetable korma is sumptuous, and also vegan and gluten-free, wrote Nandita Godbole. She recommends serving it with paratha or other flatbreads or steaming hot basmati rice “for a very satisfying dining experience.”
If you’re sensitive to hot pepper, start with ¼ teaspoon cayenne and add more to the finished sauce if you like.
Instead of adding vegetables, you can heat cooked chicken in the sauce, and garnish it with cashews and raisins.
Makes 8 servings
❖ 2 Tbsp. oil
❖ 1 tsp. cumin seeds
❖ 2 small onions, finely chopped
❖ 1 large bay leaf, preferably Indian
❖ 1 or 2 whole cloves
❖ A 5-cm. (2-in.) cinnamon stick
❖ 3 green cardamom pods
❖ 1 tsp. ginger paste
❖ 1 tsp. garlic paste
❖ ¼ tsp. turmeric powder
❖ 1 tsp. cayenne pepper powder
❖ ½ tsp. cumin powder
❖ ½ tsp. coriander powder
❖ A 470-ml. (16-oz.) can of thick coconut milk
❖ 2 cups diced mixed vegetables (green beans, carrots, peas, cauliflower and potatoes), lightly cooked
❖ Salt, to taste
❖ Handful of cilantro leaves for garnish
Heat oil in a large, deep saucepan over high heat. When oil is hot, but not smoking, add cumin seeds and stir until they sizzle.
Reduce heat to medium- high and add chopped onions, allowing them to cook until they have softened and are golden pink in color.
Add bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods and stir well until they release their aromas. Add ginger paste and garlic paste, and cook for 1 or 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium low and add the powdered spices: turmeric, cayenne pepper, cumin and coriander. Keep stirring to ensure that the spices do not burn or stick to the pot. Next, stir in the coconut milk and let it combine with the spices. When bubbles form along the inside of the saucepan, add the mixed vegetables.
Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are tender. Season with salt, garnish with cilantro leaves and serve hot.
This dish “has its roots in the royal cuisine of the northern state of Rajasthan,” wrote Rinku Bhattacharya. It has a deep red color due to the red chili peppers and mild chili powder used to make the sauce.
Black cardamom pods are available at Indian markets in Ramle. If you don’t have them, you can add a few extra green cardamom pods. Serve the lamb with rice or flatbread.
To make the dish kosher, instead of the yogurt that Bhattacharya mixes with the spices, substitute an equal amount of parve yogurt, parve cream or thick coconut milk.
Makes 6 servings
❖ 2 tsp. cumin seeds
❖ 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
❖ 6 dried red chilies (hot peppers)
❖ 1 Tbsp. Kashmiri red chili powder, or paprika mixed with a pinch of cayenne pepper
❖ 1 cup yogurt (parve), thick parve cream or thick coconut milk
❖ 1.35 kg. (3 lb.) lamb, on the bone
❖ 1½ tsp. garam masala powder (an Indian spice blend – see note below)
❖ 2 tsp. salt
❖ ¹⁄3 cup vegetable oil
❖ 4 onions, chopped
❖ 1 garlic clove, sliced
❖ 4 black cardamom pods
❖ 6 green cardamom pods
❖ ¹⁄3 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves
Place cumin seeds, coriander seeds and dried chilies in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Stir in the red chili powder or paprika mixture.
In a mixing bowl, mix the ground spices with the parve cream or coconut milk, lamb, garam masala and salt. Set aside to marinate while you cook the onions.
Heat half the oil in a pot, add the onions and cook until they are a pale toffee color.
Stir in the garlic, cardamom pods and lamb mixture. Cook over fairly high heat, stirring frequently and adding the remaining oil as needed to brown the meat; it takes about 15 minutes of active cooking to obtain the right result.
Stir in about ¾ cup water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a medium simmer, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes or until meat is fairly soft.
Stir well and cook uncovered for 10 minutes to let the gravy thicken. Stir in most of the cilantro. Serve sprinkled with remaining cilantro.
Bhattacharya’s Garam Masala: Place four 5-cm. (2-in.) cinnamon sticks, 1 tablespoon cardamom seeds, and 1½ tablespoons whole cloves in a dry pan and lightly roast for 1 to 2 minutes. Place in a coffee grinder or spice mill and grind till powdered. Store in an airtight jar and use as needed. Makes ¼ cup.