Harsh Tasting Curry?
There are few things more disappointing than a curry with an overpowering and unpleasant flavour, whether it be mild like a chicken tikka masala, or hot like a vindaloo. The first mouthful may taste great, but after a few more the taste buds are rebelling and informing you in no uncertain terms that they aren’t happy.
It’s very easy to cook a harsh curry, and apart from burning one there are numerous other causes. When I first started out trying to recreate restaurant curries this became a frustrating obstacle, and it was only through time, practice, analysis, scientific trial and error – and the occasional ‘eureka’ moment – that I overcame it.
Identifying the precise cause (or causes) of harshness in any given curry involved painstaking experimentation, repeating the cooking and each time changing no more than one or two things until the cause(s) became evident. It was the most frustrating yet rewarding part of my BIR experience.
My curry recipes stipulate carefully considered measurements, and while it may not matter if a little extra of an ingredient is added, there is a tipping point beyond which a potentially good curry can turn bad very easily. If you are a newcomer to making BIR cuisine, I strongly suggest you stick rigidly to the ingredient measurements. Once you become more skilled and confident you will be able to customise the recipes to your taste, should you feel the need.
Below is a summary of common causes of bitterness or harshness, which should help you identify the individual or collective reasons for the problem.
- Powdered spices (e.g. mix powder, chilli powder, garam masala) used excessively, or not fried enough for enough time to release the flavour and remove their raw flavour.
- Poor quality brands of chilli powder, Madras curry powder, paprika, garam masala, etc. The quality can vary, even between two packets from the same supplier’s brand.
- Ginger has a very strong flavour, which if used excessively is overpowering. As mentioned earlier, I would suggest using a greater proportion of garlic than ginger in your ginger/garlic paste, perhaps in a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1.
- Too much fenugreek, whether that be in leaf or powdered seed form.
- Excessive tomato purée or a poor-quality brand. A good purée should not be overly acidic and should have a warm sweetness to it. Frying it for longer when cooking a curry will bring out the sweetness and mitigate the bitterness somewhat.
- A disproportionate amount of salt, especially if added right at the end of cooking.
- Too much lemon/lime juice. This is obviously naturally acidic, but the juice from freshly-squeezed fruit will always have a kinder flavour than bottled juice or dressing.
- Similarly, excessive or poor-quality vinegar can ruin a curry. The acidity varies between types and brands. Treat your vindaloo with the respect it deserves and make sure you use a good vinegar, and in the appropriate amount.
- Indian pickles are invariably bitter and sour tasting and vary in potency. Lime and shatkora pickles are especially bitter. Use with caution.
- Garam masala is a pungent spice, especially when added raw at or near the end of making a curry. For that reason it is used sparingly in BIR cooking. The potency and flavour of different garam masala powders varies considerably between brands or recipes. It depends on the composition of the constituent ground whole spices, and the amount of ‘filler’ spices used to bulk it out, such as cumin and coriander. See the Pre-Prepared Ingredients chapter for my Garam Masala recipe, which is quite forgiving compared with others I have used.
How to Fix a Bitter Curry
Obviously, it’s better not to cook an unpleasant tasting curry in the first place, but there are a few other ways that I’ve found to allay bitter flavours, albeit with the side-effect of potentially changing the underlying flavours.
- Adding a little sugar or other sweet ingredient will round off the edges of the harsh, acidic, or very hot flavours.
- Full-fat dairy products such as cream, yoghurt and butter will also smooth things out. Yoghurt, however, has a prominent sourness to it, so will not help reduce acidity.
- Bulk the curry out with ‘neutral’ ingredients such as spinach, mushrooms, or pre-cooked potatoes, and cook it for longer. This will effectively share and lessen the overall excessive flavour burden.
- Lemon or lime juice, although increasing the acidity, will curb the heat of chilli powder.
- Serve the curry and mix it with plain boiled rice. Its neutral nature will help disperse the strong flavours.
- Cleanse your palate with water, milk, or something sweet before eating a curry, especially if you have just munched on poppadoms with tart accompaniments such as onion salad and lime pickle.
- If you have just cooked a curry, your taste buds will have already enjoyed a sensory head start from the intense aromas wafting up from the frying pan. Take a break, preferably with some fresh air, and you will enjoy the flavours more.
- If you let a curry rest and cool down a little before consuming, your taste buds will thank you for it. Likewise, if left overnight or longer before eating, harsh flavours tend to dissipate a bit once the curry has had some time to ‘get to know itself a bit better’.
This article features sample content from my first book, Indian Restaurant Curry at Home Volume 1.