Recreating epic restaurant curry
April 10, 2017 12:10 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I went to a curry restaurant while we were on vacation last weekend and had some of the best curry we have ever had. Despite ordering "familiar" things, my husband ended up getting something we have never had before and with a flavor we desperately want to reproduce. It was simply called "Madras Chicken" but it was very far removed from the madras curry we're familiar with that I don't even know where to start to recreate it. Help?

My husband ordered "Madras chicken" and rather than the usual madras curry flavour we're used to (tomato based, bright, cumin heavy) he ended up getting an incredible dark curry with echos of our normal madras but also very different taste at the same time.

It was a very dark brown. (I'm used to red/orange madras curry)
It was a thick curry. I was able to spoon some on to my papadum and it didn't run off.
It had a VERY deep, rich, dark flavour. Not burnt, but dark.
It had an acidity which I presume came from tomato but it wasn't at all tomato-y, so I'm sort of on the fence here.
I could definitely see mustard seeds and fennel seeds.
There was a sweetness that I think may have been caramelized onions.

Does this sound familiar? Any ideas on how I might zero in on a recipe closer to what we had?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As far as the acidity, color, and sweetness, do you think it was maybe tamarind-heavy?
posted by Lyn Never at 12:18 PM on April 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Tamarind is a good bet, as Lyn Never says. Amchoor too maybe?
posted by The Notorious B.F.G. at 12:28 PM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Where were you?
posted by parmanparman at 12:28 PM on April 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think you're onto something with the onions. I suspect the onions may have led to the color as well. I make big batches of curry base by caramelizing bulk onions and tomato in a slow cooker. The proportion of the onion to the tomato, and the order I add them to the slow cooker, determine how red or brown the curry is.

This post also suggests that the sweetness may be from carrots.
posted by tofu_crouton at 12:32 PM on April 10, 2017

Can you say what restaurant it is? If they have a menu online, it might be possible to pinpoint some ideas based on the other items on the menu and even the way they spell some common items (North Indian/Pakistani restaurants will tend to spell things a bit differently than Southern Indian restaurants when translating into English spellings). Southern Indian food is quite different from Northern Indian and Pakistani food.

I would guess that the acidity could come from tamarind, and almost all of the traditional curries I've had here in the UK (and by traditional, I mean traditional British Indian, a specific kind of cuisine that sounds a lot like what you had based on your description) usually starts with a base of onion, ginger, and garlic - not quite caramelised to a dark dark brown but pretty close.
posted by cilantro at 12:33 PM on April 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is a bit out of left field, but Madras, AKA Chennai, is a city in the south of India, so if this restaurant was using that name in a more literal sense than the normal "madras curry," you might want to look toward South Indian flavors.

As Lyn Never says, tamarind is a central souring agent in South Indian cooking and is a dark brown color. Coconut products are much more heavily used in the south, so you might have any combination of coconut oil, fresh and/or dried coconut flakes, or coconut milk (which is slightly sweet in its natural sense.) Curry leaves are also more frequently, though not exclusively, used in the south.
posted by andrewesque at 12:33 PM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Try writing the restaurant and enclosing a self addressed envelope. During my honeymoon, my husband and I had several memorable meals. I was able to write 3 restaurants describing the very special occasions and memories involved and to my surprise, two out of three wrote back with the recipes. My favorite one was a recipe scribbled on a piece of notebook paper from the cook, splattered with stains and a sweet note thanking us for making her day. Good luck!
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 12:39 PM on April 10, 2017 [16 favorites]

Coming from Madras aka Chennai, I can tell you that there are probably as many recipes for Madras Chicken as there are cooks in Madras i.e. a LOT. My bets would be tamarind for the non-tomato acidity. That would also lead to a rich brown color. Amchur (dried mango powder) is a more North Indian ingredient, and would be unlikely (though stranger things have happened). The sweetness could be from caramelized onions, or even a bit of jaggery (gud or unrefined sugar). The thickness also points towards caramelized onions, that's commonly used as a thickening agent in Indian curries. Coconut could also be used to thicken, when ground up. Your best bet would be asking the restaurant. Unfortunately there isn't much consensus about what a Madras Curry is in India.
posted by peacheater at 12:44 PM on April 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

I think all the advice here is pretty sound (heavily browned onions, tamarind for sour, coconut or coconut cream to thicken).

I also always think of madras curry powder as being pretty "light" in color, if redder than "generic" curry powders usually due to more chili powder being included. As for the darker color, depending on where you are doing your shopping, you might want to consider a Sri Lankan style roasted curry powder like this (I bought some prepared for me at my favorite NYC spice shop).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:54 PM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've had and made dark "madras" curries like this. The sourness was from lemon juice for example and there was little tomato or tomato paste was used instead, dark stock was also added. Needless to say not exactly authentic!

But yeah, lemon juice and stock, lots of onion, little in the way of ginger and pretty conventional spices ie turmeric, cumin, coriander maybe a little bit of fennel seed. Good luck!
posted by smoke at 2:08 PM on April 10, 2017

Oh PS I consider myself quite experienced with Indian cuisine but replicating restaurant Indian is something I find quite challenging, and I suspect it's because of the truly epic amounts of salt/sugar/ghee/cream that winds up in a lot of western Indian restaurants. Just something to bear in mind if it's not hitting the spot exactly.
posted by smoke at 2:10 PM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing tamarind for the sour. The dark color usually comes from a blend of roasted spices (curry powder) used when the curry is being cooked down. The thickness comes from using as many onions as possible that are caramelized until soft, and a touch of coconut cream to add to the richness of the sauce.
posted by Everydayville at 3:03 PM on April 10, 2017

The restaurant was the Taj Mahal in Moncton, New Brunswick. The description of the madras chicken is basically meat in a tomato based sauce and spices with coconut. Weirdly, I did not catch the coconut flavour at all, nor the tomato. I'm starting to think maybe they gave him the wrong dish and it was actually something else.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:02 AM on April 11, 2017

Any chance it was Massaman curry? It's Thai .... but it's dark brown, sweet, and tangy.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:19 AM on April 11, 2017

A friend agrees that tamarin was used, and suggests that the spices were sun roasted.
posted by oceano at 7:26 AM on April 12, 2017

I know that tea and dried Indian gooseberries (amla) are used as darkening agents in making chole (a kind of chickpea curry). I don't know the meat side of Indian cooking well enough to say if they're used in the same way.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:28 AM on April 12, 2017

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