Gravy Train (Part 1)

This two-part post is for the readers who are still new to the world of cooking and as promised, I will share some of the very basic tips which will hopefully help you plan your dishes. Every cuisine has some distinct gravies/sauces which provide a base for a dish. Sometimes the food is cooked directly in the sauce, that is, vegetables and meat are added to the sauce, sometimes it is poured over the cooked food or in some cases the gravy and the other ingredients are cooked simultaneously. Here I am going to specifically talk about Indian curries which have a wide range of gravies (I realised it when I started thinking about what to mention here and the list was endless, so I will be writing about the basic ones). I have some recipes in the pipeline where I will be using these ideas, but for now let’s know about the fundamental gravies in Indian cuisine, something which you need to remember whether you cook a quick dinner or an elaborate meal.
Every food show I watched often used this term which was followed in my home too – clean flavours. When I lived in Guwahati, and sometimes even now, I tend to go overboard and want to use everything I see in front of me: “Shall I put this? What about this?” And my mom would roll her eyes and simply say: “Keep it clean; trust me, it will still taste good if you don’t put this.” (BTW, are you guys repeating the mantra I mentioned in the first post? Don’t forget to do that, it has magic powers.)
Now this brings me to the very basis of Indian food, I like to call it ‘The Magic Trio’ aka onion-ginger-garlic. I mean you cannot go wrong with it no matter how sleepy or busy you are, unless you burn your food. There was always a paste of these three in my home and mom used to cup her hand to show much I need to put – a little garlic, ginger must be roughly double the amount of garlic and onion double the amount of ginger (besides this paste, chopped onions are added later, so the total quantity of onions increases). She also added a little jeera or cumin and a couple of chillies to make a paste of it in a mixer-grinder. This can be kept in the fridge for 3, 4 days easily and you can use it for both veg and non-veg dishes. If you don’t have a mixie you can also use readymade pastes available in the market, I used them for 6 years and they work fine. Using a paste helps to mix the flavours in the gravy and also if you, like me, hate biting into a random piece of ginger. You can buy the pastes separately or get the combo ones, like ginger-garlic paste. I like to use separate ones so that the distinct flavours remain intact. You can also use a fine grater where you will get a pulpy paste.
This combination of ginger, garlic, onion paste, along with chillies, cumin, turmeric and salt in oil can be used for cooking both non-veg and veg dishes. Once the spices and masalas release their flavours or the oil separates, you can add your veggies or meat and cook it in this mixture. If you want it to remain dry, there is no need to add water, and it is ideal for rotis. But if you want to have with rice, add a little water so that it forms a gravy-like consistency. Trust me, you cannot go wrong with this.
Another favourite of mine made brilliantly by my mom is the simple ‘patla jhol’ or ‘light gravy’. It is less spicy, perfect for hot summers or when you don’t feel like having oily, spicy food. Here, to the oil a mixture of spices called ‘paanch foron’ is added. Paanch foron is used in eastern Indian curries and is a combo of fenugreek seeds (methi), cumin seeds (jeera), fennel seeds (saunf), mustard seeds, nigella seeds (kalaunji or kali jeera foron). Readymade packets are available or you could make your own. When you add this to the oil, they splutter and release a smoky flavour in the oil. After that, you can add ginger, onions, chillies, a few slices of tomatoes, turmeric, a pinch of cumin and salt. This is mostly used for watery veggies like bottle gourd (laau or lauki), pointed gourd (potol or parwal), round gourd (tinda), squash, potatoes, pumpkin (kaddu or mishti laau), French beans, soya bean nuggets etc. This is a runny gravy, so after lightly sautéing the vegetables, water is added to it and the veggies are cooked in it.
Another light gravy would be good old ‘tenga’ which literally means tangy. It is an Assamese dish mostly used as a base for fish recipes but you also have vegetarian dishes like ‘bor tenga.’ Smear the fish with salt and turmeric and deep fry them (Vegetarians can fry pakodas or nuggets of masoor dal/red lentil paste). Add paanch foron to mustard oil, then onions, ginger, chillies, chopped tomatoes, and to thicken the gravy, slightly boiled potatoes or chopped gourd maybe added. Add turmeric powder, salt, lemon juice and the pieces of fish. Add water and simmer till the fish is cooked.
These gravies are usually used for everyday cooking; it is part of the staple diet and hence not too spicy. Next time I will be talking about heavier gravies which can be prepared when you want to have something special or have invited friends over for dinner. I have not given any specific recipes this time, but these are supposed to be your guidelines for any dish. If you have any questions or want any recipe to be explained in details let me know in the comments section!

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Author: Meghalee Das (118 Posts)

Meghalee Das is a former journalist, who occasionally writes as a freelancer. She loves traveling, camping, hiking, kayaking, gardening and of course, cooking. Currently she is doing her MBA from Texas State University and updates her blog whenever she gets the time!


  1. Megh..your tips, I am sure would be going a long way to assist many — not only the new cooks but also the ones who are still jostling to perfect this art….thanks..

  2. Meghalee says:

    Thanks Tania, cooking is a continous learning process and I hope to learn something from everyone too.

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