The Secret to British Indian Restaurant (BIR) Style Curries at Home

Microwave meals and jars of curry sauces are fine, as far as they go and for what they are. But they will never get close to replicating the kind of BIR curries you enjoy at the restaurant or as a takeaway. However, there really isn’t very much more effort involved if you want to make your own delicious BIR style curries at home. Just a few simple steps is all it takes. Below, I’m going to share with you the ‘secrets’ behind making curries at home that will rival your local takeaway.

Some people may already be aware of what I’m about to share. However, what I think a lot of people are not aware of is how easy it is to make delicious BIR style curries at home. The biggest obstacle standing in people’s way is preparing what is known as the base gravy. But don’t be put off. Yes, it’s a little time consuming but not much more than making soup and the most important thing is that you’ll only have to do it a few times a year. Indeed, if you plan to make a curry for you and a friend once a week for a year then you’ll only need to prepare the base gravy three or four times. Each time you make a batch, you can store individual portions that will last you around three months consuming one a week,

Once you have prepared the base gravy and if you pre-cook your meat then homecooked BIR style curries can be cooked in less than 15mins from start to finish. As I just said, the real effort is making the base gravy but this can be done once and then frozen in individual portions. The same goes for the meat. When I want to make a curry at home, I defrost a portion of base gravy and a portion of the meat I’m using; fry up some onion and garlic, add the spice mix (also pre-prepared), some tomato puree and then the base gravy and meat. That is essentially it. Compare this to cooking up a curry from a shop-bought jar. The extra effort involved is minimum but the gains in taste and flavour are immense!

There are a few other ‘secrets’ that will bring your home cooked curries up a several notches. Even if you don’t have the time to cook up some base gravy you can add these extra steps to massively bring up the flavour of the overall meal.

Below, I give you everything you’ll need to make a basic, general, BIR curry. The steps involved to turn these curries into familiar restaurant-style dishes are minimal and easy.

The ‘meat’ of the dish. That is, the lamb or chicken, fish, prawns, paneer or vegetables that makes, for example, a curry, a lamb curry, a chicken curry, a prawn curry, and so on. Although not traditionally found in Indian restaurants, you can of course use beef and pork if you wish. The meat, especially the lamb, can be cooked in advance. Not only does this mean your curries can be whipped up in minutes but your lamb will be melt-in-the-mouth tender.

Base gravy. This is the secret weapon employed by Indian restaurants and takeaways up and down the land. Easy to make, although a little time consuming, this gravy adds an instant burst of flavour to your curries. As the name suggests, it is the ‘base’ of all the dishes mentioned above and the reason why you can easily prepare many different curry dishes for your guests. In most cases, the curries in British Indian restaurants all start off the same and then have a few distinctive flavours added towards the end of the cooking process. You’ll find my go-to simple base gravy recipe below.

A spice mix. You can create and use your own spice mix or choose to tailor the spices to the appropriate dishes. Something I do is mix the spices I intend to use and then put them in small jars. Each jar is then labelled with the name of the curry dish it is intended for. This way when I am cooking I can just throw the correct spices in with no fuss. For a basic use-all spice mix you can combine the following and store in a sealed glass jar. Obviously, you can double, triple, quadruple, etc., to make more spice mix.

  • 3 tablespoons mild madras curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • ½ teaspoon hot chilli powder

Methi leaves (also known as fenugreek leaves). Not to be confused with curry leaves (which taste great in a bombay potato dish) methi adds a real authentic BIR flavour to your dishes. Just a pinch of these dry leaves crumbled into the curry makes a world of difference.

Ghee (clarified butter). You can pick up a big tin of ghee from larger supermarkets or specialist groceries. This, unsurprisingly, adds a delicious butteriness to your dishes. If you’re making bombay potatoes or mushroom bhaji using ghee makes a world of difference.

Onions, garlic and ginger. Almost every dish you are going to want to prepare will require these three ingredients. The garlic and ginger can be fresh or bought pre-pureed in jars. As with the ghee, these jars are commonly available in the larger supermarkets and specialist groceries.

Specific ingredients pertaining to the dishes you want to cook. This is pretty much self-explanatory. If you want extra onions, or sliced bell peppers, extra tomatoes and so forth you can have them chopped up and ready to go in when the time is right.

All of the above, with the exception of the base gravy, can be shop bought. This means that you are going to have to make it yourself. The good news is that although it is a little time consuming the process itself is very simple. The next bit of good news is that you can knock up a big batch and then freeze individual portions. This means that whenever you want to have a curry – as long as you have the other ingredients – you’ll alway be able to cook one up in just minutes!

How is base gravy used in BIR cooking?

All the curries you are going to cook will follow the same pattern. First of all, you’ll heat up some oil in a large wok or frying pan. Then, you’ll fry off your chopped onions, garlic and ginger mix, followed by the spices and (usually) tomato puree. At this point your kitchen will smell delicious! Then you’ll add a splash of base gravy and that delicious smell will suddenly take on richer, deeper aroma. To this you’ll add your meat, fish or vegetables of choice and more base gravy to bring the sauce to the thickness of your choice. A pinch of methi and what you have before you is a basic lamb, chicken, fish or vegetable curry.

  1. Add 15ml oil to a hot pan or wok. (Alternatively, use ghee)
  2. Fry half a chopped or sliced onion
  3. Add 1 teaspoon of pureed garlic and ginger
  4. Add 1 tablespoon of spice mix (see above for recipe)
  5. Cook for around 30 secs. Important: do not let the spices burn. Add water or a splash of base gravy if you’re concerned.
  6. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato puree (thinned with water to make it easier to pour)
  7. Add 1 ladle or around 200mls of base gravy and cook for around a minute.
  8. Add pre-cooked chicken or lamb.
  9. Add 1 more ladle of base gravy.
  10. When the meat is up to temperature add 1 pinch of methi leaves.
  11. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

For specific curry dishes that your guests may like or request, the only difference to the above is the addition of some ingredients and maybe some specific spices. The basic process is always the same. If you have precooked your meat (highly recommended for lamb) then from start to finish a curry should take less than 20 mins.

Tiny changes can have a big effect. If you’re using lamb, consider replacing the tomato puree in step 6 with a tablespoon of tomato ketchup and a tablespoon of mint sauce. It’s delicious. Alternatively, omit the ginger in step 3 and add a tablespoon of chilli powder to the spice mix in step 4. After stage 9 add 20ml of balsamic vinegar to the mix. Omit step 8 and replace the onion in step two with sliced mushrooms. Do everything else the same but cook until the dish is almost sticky in consistency, your guests will love it! You can see how you can make many different dishes but following almost exactly the same process. With two pans on the go, you can whip up a meal for four in around 30 mins with everyone sharing dishes.

Easy base gravy recipe

There are lots of variations out there, from the very simple to the much more complex. Each restaurant or takeaway will have their own recipe. I really do recommend experimenting with the flavours you like and seeking out different recipes to try. What I provide is basic and tastes great but everyone has developed their own taste palette and only you can discover what’s best for you.

Gather together all the ingredients below and either throw them all in a large pot and simmer for an hour (after bringing to the boil) or begin by gently frying the onions for 20 mins and then throwing all the other ingredients into the pot and simmering for an hour after bringing them to a boil. The latter method tastes better but is a little more effort. After an hour, turn off the heat and blitz into a smooth soup-like consistency.

  • 150ml of cooking oil
  • 1 kg of onions (4 big ones or 6 medium sized ones)
  • All the cloves of a head of garlic (usually 10-12 cloves)
  • Lump of fresh ginger about ¾ of the size of your thumb, chopped
  • A large carrot, grated or chopped
  • 1 bell pepper chopped (any colour)
  • Half a potato, chopped
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes (400g or thereabouts)
  • 100 ml of condensed milk (optional but makes a difference)
  • 2 tablespoons of cumin powder
  • 2 tablespoons of coriander powder
  • 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder
  • 1 tablespoon of paprika
  • A large sprig of fresh coriander (you’ll get a much better deal from a specialist grocers that you get with those little packets available at the supermarket)
  • Enough water (or chicken/vegetable stock) to cover everything in the pan

Assuming you now have a large pot of hot soup-like deliciousness in front of you, wait for it to cool off a bit before decanting into freezer-safe containers. The above should yield around 24 portions. Unless you regularly eat alone, I would use 12 containers. The frozen base gravy can be defrosted in the microwave or let overnight in the fridge to defrost if you plan to have curry the next day.

Two top-tips!

  1. The ideal consistency for the base gravy is like a thin soup, almost as thin as full-fat milk. If your base gravy looks more like a McDonald’s milkshake then simply add water to thin to the desired consistency. When you add the gravy during the curry making process you aren’t just heating it up but cooking it; accordingly you want it to be thin in order to release the sweet flavours.
  1. Don’t forget to heat your gravy before using. If you pour it straight from the fridge it will chill the curry and hinder the cooking process. The best approach is to have it gently simmering in a small pot on the hob. Using a ladle you can add the gravy in small batches. Remember, you want to cook the gravy when you use it and so small batches are preferred.