FOOD: Cracking the curry code


I’ve been cooking for 35 years and for the longest time curry was the hardest to cook. I’m Indian and have been eating curry all my life, but if I wanted to cook a curry, I’d find myself reaching for a recipe and stressing over spices, proportions and getting it right. Then, watching the food channels on TV, I noticed a procession of Australian, English, Italian and American celebrity chefs traipse through India sampling the food and observing top chefs and street vendors before creating their own curry concoctions so effortlessly. They’d  thrust their curries at viewers, smirk and declare them “Wicked!” “Delicious” Or “Sooo good for a cold winter’s evening!” Oh shame, shame, shame on me! I looked a little harder and then, finally I cracked the curry code and it has changed my life. So many curry recipes start with the Magic GGO Combo of Ginger, Garlic and Onion. Sometimes all three are blitzed to a paste. Sometimes, you paste two, fry one. Or chop and fry all three. Or julienne and place them at the bottom of a pan and build your flavours gently over them. You toss in spices, powders, herbs, and get your gravy by adding water, coconut milk or yogurt. And you’ll get there too and cook a curry in a hurry without breaking in a sweat! I’m not afraid of curry any more.

But I’ll still reach for my ageing DIY recipe book with my family food. I included this 100-year-old (at least!) recipe for Pork Vindaloo in Good Grief! and since the book came out I’ve been getting more requests than usual from friends to cook it. It’s not hard at all. This Malayalee recipe was brought to Malaya by my grandparents when they arrived from the south Indian state of Kerala at the turn of the 20th Century. It won’t be a vindaloo if it’s not hot from dried chilli and sour from vinegar, and it’s also a recipe with the Magic GGO Combo. Here, the ginger and garlic go into the spice paste while sliced onions are fried at the start. Here’s the recipe. Make sure you get it hot and sour!


1kg pork, cubed

Half a cup of sliced red onion

2 tablespoons tamarind paste mixed in half a cup of water

3 tbs white vinegar

Salt to taste


Spice mix

Grind the following in a blender for a rough, grainy paste:

25 dried red chillis, cut and softened in warm water

5-cm piece of fresh ginger

6–8 pips garlic depending on size

1 dsp black mustard seeds

1 dsp cumin seeds



  1. Fry the sliced onions in 3 tbs oil until golden brown.
  2. Add the ground spice mix and fry well until pungent turns fragrant.
  3. Add the tamarind liquid and vinegar to taste. Don’t put all of it in, check for sourness later.
  4. Add pork and salt, stir well till all the meat is coated nicely in the spice mix.
  5. Add a cup of water. Not too much because pork releases water and you don’t want to end up with vindaloo soup.
  6. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the pork is tender and the gravy is thick. Don’t rush.
  7. Check for salt and vinegar.


This is a foolproof dish to cook because you decide the cut of meat you like, whether you prefer the meat sliced bigger or smaller, the spices ground rough or smooth, and how hot or sour you dare to make it.

You can’t overcook a pork vindaloo. If after 45 minutes you think the meat is not tender enough, just add water and let it simmer longer.

If the meat tastes right but the gravy’s too watery, turn up the heat and let it thicken. And vice versa – if it looks too dry, add water.

Always check the vinegar and salt at the end. It’s not a vindaloo if it lacks a vinegary kick. If that’s missing, add a splash.


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