Calorie Cheating Chicken Curry

A magnificent, authentic-tasting curry recipe with just 390 calories per portion (about the same as a supermarket diet range chicken tikka sandwich).

calorie cheating chicken curryOne 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?

DIY Masala

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…

diet chicken curry recipeCalorie Cheating Chicken Curry Recipe

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
  1. Mix the curry masala (and extra chilli powder if using) with just enough water to make a fairly thick paste.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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
  9. Remove immediately from the heat, stir in the chopped coriander, and check the salt.

A Big Plate of Calorie Cheating Shepherd’s Pie

Comfort food you can eat on a diet…

Diet Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd’s Pie is about as far removed as you can get from a mixed bean salad. And of course the whole point of it is having a great big satisfying plateful – with nothing more than a dollop of ketchup on the side.  Of course you could get the calories down by bulking up a small portion with some purple sprouting broccoli or some such side dish, but that’s not really the point of Shepherd’s Pie, is it?  And of course, this dish is a calorific car crash – the fat in the meat, the oil used for frying, the carbs in the potatoes, the butter in the mash.  I calculated the calories in the recipe I’ve always used and it came out at a wince-inducing 1100 calories per portion. No wonder I’m on a diet now. Of course the frying oil’s calories are easily disposed of by using an oil spray, but after that, we’re going to have to be more ingenious.

So first, I use a mixture of beef and pork rather than the traditional lamb, to help cut the fat content. And rather than hunt around in the supermarket for super-lean mince, still not really knowing what went into it, I grind my own.  You could get the butcher to do it for you, but you’re better off getting a mincer (or attachment for your food-processor) and doing it yourself – I don’t know why, but it just tastes better.

The cut of beef I’ve been using is Brisket – cheap, full of flavour and, when trimmed up, extremely lean. It makes lovely mince – and great burgers, incidentally, which I’ll return to in a later blog. To help get the numbers down I mix it with pork fillet, which is even leaner – and even cheaper. I did think about offsetting the calories even further by sneaking in some lentils but as I like my Shepherd’s Pie with celery and carrot in it, more veg didn’t seem what was wanted here.

So onto the topping – and mashed potato, even if you cut out the butter and milk, is always going to be a massive wad of calories.  After a bit of trial and error, I found the answer is to cut it fifty-fifty with celeriac.  This incredibly versatile root vegetable purees up a treat and yet has a cooked weight with about five times fewer calories than potato. And unlike something alien like swede, these two really work together, making a brilliant mash which complements the filling perfectly.

So here you go – Shepherd’s Pie you can eat on your diet – bloody delicious with a good slug of ketchup and a bottle of red Cotes Du Rhone or Shiraz – and just 390 calories per portion.


4 good portions 

400g Beef brisket, mince
200g Pork tenderloin / fillet, minced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped or grated
4 stalks of celery, finely chopped
3 tbs Tomato ketchup
1.5 tbs Mushroom ketchup (or Worcestershire sauce if necessary)
15g Flour
400ml stock – chicken or beef made up from a cube is fine
Salt and pepper
Dried mixed herbs - about a teaspoon
300g Potatoes
600g Celeriac
10g Flora Light

1.  ‘Fry’ off the onion using spray oil, bearing in mind that you’ll need to use considerably less heat than for normal frying. This is quite a slow process and it will feel ‘wrong’, but be reassured – it does actually work.

2.  Add the herbs, then the carrots until they soften, and finally the celery.

3.  When the whole thing’s sweated down nicely, remove from the pan, turn up the heat and seal the meat. You don’t need to add any more oil for this.

4.  Sprinkle in the flour and stir it in for a minute or two before adding back the vegetables, and season with the tomato and mushroom ketchup, salt and pepper. You need a good teaspoon of salt, and up to another half teaspoon when you adjust the seasoning later.

5. Pour in the stock, bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat, partially cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. You might have to add some water to keep things moving, but at the end the mixture should have a slightly pasty quality to the gravy and shouldn’t be too wet – so reduce down if necessary. Adjust the seasoning – too little salt means bland, unexciting food!

6. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes and celeriac in separate pans until soft; drain, combine and mash. Season and beat with a little margarine.

7. Pour the filling into a pie dish and fork over the topping.  Spray with oil and shove in the oven for about 30 minutes at 200C until golden brown.Diet recipes - low calorie Shepherd's Pie