A magnificent, authentic-tasting curry recipe with just 390 calories per portion (about the same as a supermarket diet range chicken tikka sandwich).
One of my most vivid food memories is of eating a curry in London’s Golders Green back in my student days. It was a very basic – though nicely cooked – prawn vindaloo, but it very quickly turned into one of those epic battles between Man and Curry – as I heroically fought to carry on eating forkfuls of tiny sweet prawns while tears streamed down my face, and my tongue and lips went completely numb. It was agony – and ecstasy – a bloody fantastic food experience that to date hasn’t been bettered.
I do love a curry and over the years, like everyone who uses local takeaways and Indian restaurants I suppose, I’ve eaten some good ones – and some which were pretty dire. So my real love affair with curry started a couple of years ago, when I taught myself how to cook it properly. I must say this was entirely down to coming across a copy of Pat Chapman’s Curry Bible which may not sound like the most authentic book in the world, but it’s become as important in my kitchen today as Delia’s Complete Cookery Course was in those student years. With my jar of homemade curry masala always at the ready, I simply wouldn’t think of ordering a curry – and I haven’t for about 3 or 4 years now
Which is a good thing because it turns out the average Indian takeaway contains a staggering 1400 calories – and more saturated fat than a woman should eat in an entire day. So can it really be possible to enjoy a truly decent curry while counting calories?
Well first off, you need to grind your own spice mix (masala). Now if that sounds like a bit of a bore, bear in mind that using an all-purpose spice mix is pretty much a cheat anyway. Once you’ve ground all the ingredients they can sit in an airtight jar for up to 3 months, which if you like curry as much as I do, won’t be a problem. In any case, it’s a very satisfying procedure – and all you need is a coffee grinder, a large glass of wine, and a dustpan and brush.
Curry masala comes in all shapes in sizes but basically we’re talking a mix of ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and chilli – and other spices to taste. There are some really good recipes out there online – I’ve always used Pat Chapman’s blend of 25 spices which you can find here – or another reliable recipe which is much quicker to put together is here.
But please don’t think you can ignore this step and busk it with some insipid shop-bought factory-made curry powder….you can’t. Please don’t even try it. You’re on a diet – you need to spoil yourself with some big flavours… what’s the matter with you?
Keeping the Calories Low
Here’s an important thing about making curry. It is essential to start the cooking process by gently frying off the masala in oil to release its natural oils and aromatics – and this step, and the onion and minced garlic frying which follows – is the reason why takeaway curries often come floating in a pool of oil. Fact is, you need quite a lot of it to keep things from burning, and if you use ghee, which I always have, that’s an awful lot of calories.
Nevertheless, I have discovered that it is perfectly possible to reduce the oil significantly so long as you have a really good non-stick pan/wok, keep an eye on the heat, and are prepared to give the process loads of TLC. And as with ratatouille, you mustn’t reduce the oil level beyond a certain point anyway, or it simply won’t have the right mouthfeel.
In this recipe I’ve bulked out the chicken by adding cauliflower and french beans. Cauliflower – as all Gobi Bhaji fans know – is wonderful in curry, giving it texture, and really adding fillingness, if that’s a word.
Which brings me to rice. Forget it. At 350 calories per 100g rice is to be completely avoided if you’re counting calories. (If you insist on having it – with this curry a 40g portion (dry weight) equating to 140 calories will just about do the job.) But here’s the thing – and I know you won’t believe me, but please give it a try – curry tastes so much better without having to compete with a huge slop of blandness. Far far better to eat it with bread – a Patak’s chapati, which comes in at 120 calories does the job perfectly and compared to rice, you get much more bang for your buck. Even better – make your own roti with a mix of chapati flour and gram flour – which made from chickpeas has both lower calories and a low GI. The recipe I use is here – along with rather entertaining video…
One final thing – heat. This is something you’ll have to get a feel for and depends very much on your taste and the taste of those you’re feeding. For my money, both the spice mixes above need up to 2 teaspoons of chilli powder per 4 servings added to the masala at the frying stage, or a couple of hot Indian green chillies. Don’t overdo it to start with – you can always add more heat at the end of cooking, but never by shoving in a load of chilli powder – that’s how you end up with one of those disgusting powdery vindaloos you come across every now and then. The best way to add heat at the end of cooking is to have a jar of hot chilli pickle in the fridge – Dalla Pickle which you can get from Asian stores is a good one (but be warned, it’s mindblowing stuff) – failing that, add very finely chopped green chilli, or as a last resort Tabasco (though personally I don’t like the flavour it gives the curry). Oh, and don’t forget salt. About 1 – 2 teaspoons for this recipe – not only does it bring out the flavour – but the heat too.
Contrary to popular belief, wine goes well with curry. Basically you need a slightly sweet white or rose – about 140 calories for a decent 175ml glass. Lager, the traditional booze of choice in a UK curry house, will set you back a lot more…
4 big portions 20 ml extra virgin olive oil 2 tbs curry masala, prepared as above 1-2 tsp chilli powder or 2-3 hot Indian green chillies, to taste 50g garlic (about 1 bulb) minced or chopped very finely 250g onion, finely chopped 1 can tinned tomatoes 80g green peppers roughly chopped 480g chicken breast 100g French beans 200g cauliflower florets 200ml stock Fresh coriander, chopped 1 - 2 teaspoons salt
- Mix the curry masala (and extra chilli powder if using) with just enough water to make a fairly thick paste.
- Get a good non-stick pan hot and fry the curry paste in the olive oil for about a minute, keeping it moving around so that it doesn’t burn.
- Add the onion and garlic, get it covered in spices and oil, then lower the heat and cook until really soft – about 15 mins or so.
- Add the green pepper and soften for a few minutes – then add the tomatoes and stock. Partially cover and cook for about 40 minutes until the curry has darkened and thickened, adding more water if necessary.
- Meanwhile, blanch the cauliflower florets and beans in a pan of salted water for no more than 4 minutes, and cut the chicken breast into bite sized chunks and season.
- When the curry is ready it should really look the part but will taste slightly bland until you salt it. Don’t be shy – 1 to 2 teaspoons until it tastes big and complex – and hot.
- Add the chicken and beans. Cover and turn up the heat in order to bring it back to the boil as quickly as possible, then lower the heat and cook for about 10 mins. A couple of minutes before the end, add the cauliflower.
- Beware – you have to be very careful not to overcook the chicken breast, and once it’s white in the middle, its cooked. Or if you’re a gadget fan like me, stick a meat thermometer into the biggest piece – at 160°F it’s ready
- Remove immediately from the heat, stir in the chopped coriander, and check the salt.