Simple, practical and seasonal – Simon Hopkinson’s latest book, The Vegetarian Option, puts vegetables at the centre of the meal. Here, he makes an authentic curry paste and captures the real taste of Southeast Asia

If, like me, you enjoy the taste of an authentic Indian (in the broadest sense) flavour to a curry, dhal, mulligatawny or even a samosa filling, the making of a home-made masala paste will herald all the future excitement of actually using it in such things. Although it may seem a chore to make, the difference, when a dish is complete, will be notable. No more will the homespun vegetable curry or, heaven forbid, the ubiquitous stir-fry smack of the mass-produced jar. Rather, your efforts will evoke the scents and deep odours emanating out of every Southeast Asian kitchen from Tooting to Southall. The curry “essence” is essential to one of the first dishes I ever made (aged about 13), Oeufs mollets à l’indienne (also included in The Vegetarian Option), taken from an issue of Cordon Bleu magazine in the 1970s. Originally, however, this curry flavouring was best known for spicing up Constance Spry’s famous Coronation chicken.

Both the essence and paste which flavour the two recipes are the most useful of “condiments” to have to hand in the fridge. The essence will keep for two to three weeks; the paste for simply ages, again in the fridge, kept sealed with a film of oil (not olive!).

Note: it is well worth investing in one of those electrically driven mini-chopper gadgets with a very sharp blade to make the masala paste. They can be obtained for relatively ready money and are essential for a smooth result.

Crisp celery and apple salad in curry cream dressing

A perfect light lunch – and relatively healthy. So promptly ruin that with a nice cold beer or two…

Serves 2

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled
4 crisp celery sticks, peeled
1 tbsp sultanas, plumped for 10 minutes in a little boiling water
generous squeeze of lemon juice
150ml double cream
2-3 tbsp curry essence, or to taste (see recipe below)
a sprinkle cayenne pepper

Cut the apples and celery into thick matchsticks. Carefully mix together with the sultanas and lemon juice in a roomy bowl. Chill thoroughly for 30 minutes.

In another smaller bowl, beat together the cream and curry essence until loosely thickened. Fold into the apple and celery, turn into a serving dish and sprinkle lightly with cayenne.

Curry “essence”

This curry essence from Constance Spry’s Coronation chicken recipe is the one I have always used. For me, it is correct and authentic. You won’t need all of it for the salad, but it will keep in a screw-top jar in the fridge for 3 to 4 weeks.

1 tbsp sunflower oil
50g chopped onion
2tsp good quality Madras curry powder
1 heaped tsp tomato purée
150ml red wine
120ml water
1 bay leaf
salt, sugar, a touch of pepper
juice of ½ a lemon
2 tbsp apricot jam or mango chutney

Heat the oil in a pan and gently stew the onion until transparent. Add the curry powder and cook for a few minutes longer. Stir in the tomato purée and cook for a few moments, then add all the other ingredients. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing it through with a ladle. Allow to cool.

Marrow and tomato masala

This wonderfully aromatic dish is unusually delicious. Marrow, being the bland but texturally soothing vegetable it is, throws out much liquid as it cooks. Here, together with juices from the tomatoes as they pop and burst in the heat of the assembly, it produces a dish that would not seem out of place on a stall in the streets of Mumbai, perhaps ladled out of some giant tin cauldron. In fact, so copious are the juices generated it is almost a chunky broth.

If you don’t fancy eating the skin of the marrow, simply scoop off the flesh with a spoon and leave the skin behind. However, if the marrow is fresh and young, this should not be necessary. Do try and find curry leaves, however, as they do add to the aroma of the thing.

Serves 4

1 marrow, about 1 kg
2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp masala paste (see recipe below)
12 curry leaves, fresh or dried (optional)
750g ripe red cherry or baby plum tomatoes
freshly ground pepper
50g butter, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Trim the ends of the marrow, cut it in half down through the middle and then halve each piece lengthways. Scrape out the fibre and seeds with a teaspoon and then cut each quarter in half yet again, also lengthways, giving 8 marrow “boats”.

Sprinkle salt generously over all cut surfaces and place the marrow in a colander for about 40 minutes to leach out a modicum of the juices. Rinse and dry in a tea towel.

Meanwhile, in a large lidded pot, fry the onions and garlic in the oil until golden. Add the masala paste and stir around for a few minutes. Lay the marrow pieces, skin-side down, on top and add the curry leaves, if using, then tip over the tomatoes. Season and dot with the slices of butter. Cover and place in the oven to cook for about 1½ hours.

Delicately decant into deep soup plates, so each one has 2 pieces of marrow, a spoonful of the tomatoes and plenty of aromatic broth.

Masala paste

I find this to be one of the most useful commodities you can keep at the back of the fridge in a sealed jar. When some of the paste is used, simply smooth over the surface and add a tiny bit more oil to cover. It’s useful for all sorts of vegetable, pulse and rice preparations when a complex whiff of Asian spice is called for.

4tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp fennel seeds
2 tsp brown mustard seeds
2 tsp whole cloves
2 tsp small, dried red chillies, or a little more if you like it hot
1 small handful curry leaves, slightly less if dried (optional)
300g onions, peeled and chopped
125g garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
150g fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp tamarind paste
2 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
100g creamed coconut
2 tsp Maldon salt
2 tsp caster sugar

Using a non-stick frying pan, lightly toast the whole spices – cumin, coriander, fennel and mustard seeds, cloves and chillies – until they are smelling quite wonderful and pungent, but be careful not to burn them. Tip into a small bowl to cool. Once the spices are cool, process them in a coffee grinder, or similar, until powdered.

Place the curry leaves, onions, garlic, ginger, tamarind paste, turmeric, vinegar, coconut, salt and sugar in a food processor. Add the freshly ground spices and process everything until it is as smooth as possible; this will depend on the sharpness of your blade and the power of the machine. (Do not be tempted to add the spices whole, as they will remain “bitty” if not previously powdered.)

There is enough here to fill 2 small Le Parfait jars of 350ml capacity. Cover with a film of oil and store in the fridge.

Simon Hopkinson’s The Vegetarian Option is published by Quadrille, priced £20. To order a copy for £18 including free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 68467

Nigel Slater returns in two weeks

• This article was amended on Monday, 29 March 2010 because we omitted to list the Madras curry powder in the list of ingredients for Curry “essence”. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds