The Anatomy Of Indian Curries - Gravies Of India

India is a land of curries and represents the quintessential Indian flavour worldwide. However, there is no one flavour which can define the curries of India. From state to state and region to region, the anatomy of Indian curries changes. The spices, the base ingredients, the thickeners, the flavours, and the tempering are unique to each region. Being a vast country with various cuisines, understanding how curries are prepared in different regions of India can go a long way in understanding the Indian culinary landscape.

The concept of base gravies remains fundamental to restaurant operations where curries, which usually require a longer cooking process, must be prepared in much less time. The restaurant pre-prepares base gravies to prepare many different curry dishes.

Onion and Tomatoes

Onion and tomatoes make the base of many Indian curries. ‘Makhani’ gravy is arguably the most integral gravy cooked in north Indian cuisine. The world-famous butter chicken is prepared using this. ‘Makhani’ gravy is based on pureed tomatoes thickened with cashew nut paste and some onions. The gravy is flavoured with whole spices and carries minimum salt and chili.  While making a butter chicken or a ’Murgh Makhani’, makhani gravy is reheated and flavoured with Kasoori Methi, garam masala, and a generous amount of butter and cream, into which the tandoori chicken is added. It’s the amalgamation of different flavours into a smooth, buttery gravy that makes butter chicken so creamy and delicious.

                           Image: Paneer Makhani

An equal quantity of chopped onion and tomatoes are sauteed together to prepare the ‘Kadhai’ gravy. This slow-cooked chopped masala is then used for dishes like Kadhai Chicken or Kadhai Paneer, as a base to temper ‘Dal Tadka’, and many other vegetables and chicken curries. Dishes like ‘Rajma’, ‘Aloo Gobhi’, ‘Bhindi’, ‘Baingan Bharta’, etc., are cooked using a Kadhai Gravy.

White gravy or Shahi gravy is used in many royal dishes and is added to provide richness to dishes by adding the shahi gravy in small quantities, along with other gravies. Boiled onion paste is cooked with spices and cashew to prepare a rich, creamy white gravy. It is used prominently in dishes like Korma, Navratan Korma, Shahi Paneer, Malai Koftas, etc., for a creamy texture.

A yellow gravy is similar to white; however, the use of turmeric and yellow chilli is key for giving it a unique yellow colour with a kick of chilli and spices, balanced with a touch of white gravy or a makhani gravy to prepare dishes like ‘Banarasi Dum Aloo’, ‘Banarasi Koftas’ etc.

Yoghurt-based curries

Most Indian curries use a souring agent to provide balance and flavour to spiced dishes. Yoghurt is an able souring agent used in lieu of tomatoes, giving richness and body to the curry. Kashmiris make flavourful curries using yoghurt as a base. Often onion, garlic, and tomatoes are omitted from the recipes, and a runny gravy is prepared using yoghurt, called Yakhani. An essential aspect chefs need to keep in mind is not to let the gravy curdle. Be it ‘Goshtaba’, ‘Nadru Yakhani’, or the famed Roganjosh, Yoghurt plays a vital role in giving body as well required sourness to the dishes.

                          Pic- Mutton Yakhni

In Bengal, a fish curry called ‘Doi Maach’ is cooked in a yoghurt-based gravy and is loved for its unique tangy flavour, which marries well with the sweetness of the onions and the spices.

Kadhi is a buttermilk or yogurt-based dish popular in many states of India. ‘Pahadi Aloo Palda’ is a creamy potato dish from Himachal Pradesh; Kerala’s ‘Kachimoru’ is similar to the Kadhi prepared in the northern states, albeit thinner and slightly runny in consistency. Using yogurt and chili in a ‘Laal Maans’ and coconut milk in an ‘Avial’ are some examples where yogurt is used to balance the flavour and texture of the dish. The usage of yoghurt in Indian cuisine is widespread and makes a base for many traditional recipes in different states of India.


In South India, coconut is widely used, especially in coastal regions. The ‘Meen Moilee’ (Fish Curry), the vegetable stew of Kerala, the fish curry of Goa or Karnataka, and the coastal Malvani cuisine use coconut as the base for the curries. Coconut milk is extracted to thicken gravies and provide a sweet flavour to spice-rich curries.

                                Image: Coconut fish curry

An interesting prawn curry, ‘Daab Chingri’, is prepared in Bengal using tender coconut flesh and coconut water to cook the prawns and spices. Kurma is cooked in South India, where vegetables are cooked with coconut milk and spices. Coconut, chilies, and spices are roasted to prepare the Chettinad paste used in preparing the famed Chettinad chicken.

Nuts and seeds

Curries are also thickened and flavoured with a paste made of seeds and nuts. Cashewnut is commonly used for making a paste, which gives creaminess and richness to quite a few curries. However, one fine example of using nuts and seeds is Hyderabadi Salan. In Hyderabad, dishes like ‘Mirchi Ka Salan’ and ‘Baghara Baingan’ use the paste of sesame seeds, coconut, and peanuts, then spiced as per recipe and thickened as per styles of the preparation. Salan is usually a runnier gravy often eaten as an accompaniment to Biryani; however, the fantastic vegetarian preparation from Deccan is beautifully tempered to create a flavourful and thick curry with prominent flavours of nuts and seeds shining through the recipe.

In Assam, black sesame seed paste is used to make non-vegetarian curries, especially chicken, pork, and duck dishes cooked with black sesame paste is a regional speciality of the eastern state. Poppy seeds, also as ‘Khus-khus’, provide body and texture to gravies. Almond paste is used to prepare rich and royal recipes like ‘Murgh Badami’. Peanuts, Cashewnuts, Almonds, Fox nuts, Sesame Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Poppy seeds, Fennel seeds, Cumin seeds, Caraway seeds, Nigella seeds, Fenugreek seeds, Mustard seeds, etc., are some of the nuts and seeds added to Indian curries for the body, flavour, and tempering.

Spices, tempering, and the balance of flavours

Preparing an Indian curry is complex, flavour-wise. The usage of spices to flavour and temper the curries is unique to every region. South Indian curries often carry the tempering of Mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chilies, etc. On the other hand, in northern states, cumin seeds, asafoetida, ginger garlic paste, etc., are used for tempering.

Kashmiri chilies are used less for heat but more for the bright red colour it imparts to the dishes. Guntur Chilli, Kandhari, or Bydagi chilies are prominent chilies from south India. Mathania chilies from Rajasthan are unique chili used to spice up meat curries, and Naga Mirchi from Northeast India, one of the hottest chilies in the world, are used to spice up curries in India.

Sourness is another essential element of a curry. Tomatoes, Yoghurt, Lemon, Tamarind, Kachampuli (Coorg and Kerala), Kokum, Dry Mango Powder (Amchoor), Kachri (Rajasthan), Vinegar (Goan Cuisine), Pomegranate seeds (Anardana), Raw Mango, etc. are some of the souring agents used for their tanginess as well as balance the spicy flavour of the curries.  

Sweeteners like sugar, honey, and jaggery balance the curries. Caramelised or slowly sauteed onions, coconut, and cream are other ways to add a sweet flavour to the curries. The camaraderie of the spicy, sour, and sweet flavours makes Indian curries delectable and much in demand worldwide.

More than the meat or vegetable added to a dish, the gravy and the flavours it receives from different ingredients provide an addictive taste to Indian curries, making it hard to resist.

The exploration of Indian cuisine begins with its famed curries, a culinary concept appreciated and loved worldwide. Rice, Roti, Naan, Paratha, Appam, Dosa, etc., are some of the excellent accompaniments to enjoy with the flavourful Indian curries. A trip to India will leave you with culinary memories for a lifetime. A vast country with many of its regional cuisines, Indian food has something for everyone. From mellow and creamy curries to hot and spicy ones, the Curries of India are undoubtedly the undying charm of Indian cuisine. With its widespread popularity, Indian curries are the culinary attraction that will lead you to spend time in the great gastronomical land. India and its curries welcome you all.

Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.