Showcasing the flavors of southern India, Beef Madras curry has a long-standing reputation for being the benchmark against which other curries are measured. It’s a perfect balancing act that features everything a glorious curry should be – rich, fiery, sweet, spicy, and sour.
If anything typifies the profound appeal of an Indian-influenced curry – the flavors, aromas, and appearance – then Beef Madras is it. And its well-deserved five-star status is entirely down to the superb sauce.
The fact that this cook-in sauce is so quintessentially ‘curry’, means it’s also wonderfully versatile. Don’t fancy a beef curry? Not a problem. Simply swap it out, so the sauce becomes the foundation for making, say, a more delicately-fleshed Chicken Madras, or perhaps a more richly-fatted Lamb Madras.
Born in India, raised in Britain, loved around the world
A Madras curry, like many other essentially similar ones, has its roots in the colonial, 19th century British interpretations of ethnic Indian dishes that were hot, spicy, and, most importantly, saucy.
That thing about being curry being saucy is surprisingly important. Its significance is neatly explained by Madhur Jaffrey, who, in the early 1970s, began pioneering the widespread introduction of Indian cuisine to home cooks in the so-called West.
In one of her many, wonderfully instructive cookbooks, Curry Nation, she stresses that, prior to Britain’s colonization of India, “Not a single dish was called ‘curry’ by the Indians. But the British, having already borrowed the Tamil word ‘kari’, meaning ‘sauce’, for the Indian food they ate, and looking for an umbrella term to cover the variety laid out on the table, began to call all dishes ‘curry’ and the entire meal ‘curry and rice’.”
And the same Brit-riff is behind the story of Madras curry powder. Although it features some typically southern Indian spices, these were originally combined commercially at least 150 years ago to create an off-the-shelf blend of flavors that appealed to the tastes of India’s one-time colonial rulers, the British.
Potently fiery and richly spiced
Today, Madras curries share three, defining characteristics in terms of flavor. They’re fiery, lavishly spiced, and have a noticeably piquant tang. They’re also all pretty much the same lovely color, a deep-ish brick-red that comes from the sauce’s tomatoes and its chilies, including cayenne pepper.
Now, cayenne pepper usually adds the fire to most Madras powders. In our recipe, it’s mostly there for its color, and we’re using fresh bird’s eye chilies to give the curry higher levels of fruitier, vibrant heat. I used African bird’s eye chilies (a.k.a. peri-peri), but the Thai variety will be just fine.
A Madras curry is not supposed to be exceptionally hot, but you do want to be using a variety of chili with the immediate impact of a bird’s eye. So, we’re talking something hotter than serrano or cayenne peppers, but not quite as searingly hot as habaneros.
As for the deep, spicy richness, well, that comes from slowly frying plenty of onion, ginger, and garlic with lavish amounts of ground coriander, cumin, fennel, clove, and fenugreek. Star anise adds a distinctive, licorice-y aroma and savor, heightening the fennel’s similar but more subtle effect.
Finally, a generous amount of coconut milk gives the sauce a creamily smooth, richly nutty sweetness that’s wonderfully counter-balanced by the unparalleled, sharp contrast of tamarind paste and its intensely sour, citrusy tang.
Curry. And rice, please.
When a curry is as deeply flavorsome as this one, there’s no point at all in serving it with anything other than boiled rice. It doesn’t need any sambals, chutneys, rotis, or naans alongside. It needs rice. And my bar-none recommendation is white basmati.
This long-grain rice has a nutty, slightly sweet flavor, and a delicately floral fragrance. And those two qualities really accentuate the complexity of flavors in our Beef Madras.
Basmati is also a fairly hard-textured, shiny rice, which means it’s easily boiled in a way that keeps the glowing grains separate, allowing each one to get a light coating of your curry’s superb sauce. Aside from looking so classy on your plate, that means you’ll still get to taste the rice, rather than it being completely overwhelmed by the flavors of your glorious curry.
Quarters of fresh lime and roughly chopped fresh cilantro are here to add more than window dressing. I’d call them garnishing condiments, given the seriously rewarding impact their flavors deliver.
When you squeeze the juice from a couple of quartered limes all over your just-plated ‘curry and rice’, it’s as if an individual spotlight has been shone on each of their many flavors. The lime juice encourages each of them to spend some time center-stage.
And the cilantro? Well, as a particularly aromatic, powerfully flavored herb, it works so well here because of its pepper-and-citrus taste and its grassy freshness. Chop it just moments before you serve it, and I’m sure you’ll appreciate why fresh cilantro’s vibrant, almost shocking immediacy has earned it the right to crown one of the world’s finest curries.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Andhra Chicken Curry: Hot and richly spiced, with chili peppers and cinnamon.
- Pork Cutlet Curry: Think schnitzels and curry, and you’ve got this recipe.
- Pork Vindaloo Curry: Big heat from Thai chilies here.
Beef Madras Curry
For the Beef Madras curry
- 8 fresh red bird’s eye chilies very finely chopped, seeds and all. I used the African, peri-peri variety, but Thai bird’s eyes will be just grand.
- 2 ½ pounds beef chuck or flank, roughly cut into cut 1½-inch cubes. I strongly recommend using a piece of beef that’s got a flavor-boosting fat content of around 15%.
- 1 can coconut milk 14-ounce / 400 ml
- 1 pound cherry tomatoes halved
- 3 yellow onions peeled and roughly chopped into ¼-inch dice
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- 1 heaped tablespoon fresh ginger root finely grated skin and all
- 1 heaped teaspoon tamarind paste thoroughly dissolved in 4 tablespoons boiling water
- 1 whole star anise finely ground in a pestle and mortar
- 6 cloves finely ground in a pestle and mortar
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 heaped tablespoon ground coriander
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground fenugreek
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground fennel seeds
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 6 tablespoons coconut oil the solid, cooking variety is what I used
For the garnishing condiments
- ½ ounce fresh cilantro roughly chopped, stalks and all
- 2 fresh limes quartered
For the rice
- 4 cups basmati rice thoroughly rinsed but not soaked
- 8 cups cold water
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt for adding to the rice’s cooking water
Cooking the Beef Madras
- For this, you need to use a heavy-bottomed pan – with a good lid – that’s easily big enough to hold all your curry’s ingredients. I used a cast-iron Dutch oven.
- The first step is to fry a couple of batches of the chunky cubes of beef to give them a darkish golden color, and to melt down most of the beef’s fat.
- So, set your big pan on high heat and add the coconut oil. As soon as it starts shimmering – but not smoking – add a batch of the beef in a single, evenly spaced layer. You want there to be a gap of about 1/3-inch between the cubes so that they’ll start to fry in that sizzling hot oil. If you crowd the beef tightly together in the pan, it will tend to boil in its own juices, rather than fry and pick up that dark golden color.
- Let the first batch fry on its high heat for 90 seconds, and then turn the pieces so they can all fry in that sizzling-hot oil for another. Good. Use a slotted spoon to remove the beef and set it aside on a plate. Try to leave as much of the fatty oil in the pan as you can, and then repeat this goldening process with your next batch of beef.
- Drop your big pan’s heat to medium-high and quickly stir the onions into the hot, nicely fatted oil. Fry the onions with a few stirs for 5 minutes on that medium-high heat. You want the edges of the onion to darken a little, and as soon as that happens, drop the heat to low-medium, and stir in the chilis, garlic, and ginger.
- Let it all fry with the occasional stir for 3 minutes on that low-medium heat, and then stir in the star anise, cloves, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, black pepper, and salt.
- If you feel that the mix seems a little too dry, add another tablespoon coconut oil, and fry the whole spicy mixture over low-medium for another 5 minutes.
- Now stir in the tomatoes, the tamarind paste, and its dissolving water. Turn the heat to medium and stir in the tomatoes. Let the pan come up to a barely bubbling boil and stir in the beef together with all the juices from the plate it’s been sitting on.
- Stir in the coconut milk, and when the pan begins to simmer, cover it and drop the heat to low. You now want your curry to cook – slowly and covered – for 2 ½ hours at a very gentle simmer. Give it a few good stirs as it cooks, and make sure it keeps cooking at that slow, gentle simmer – by adjusting the heat accordingly, if necessary.
Cooking the white basmati rice
- You want start on the rice about 15 minutes before the curry finishes its 2 ½ hours’ slow simmer. That means you can serve your curry and your rice piping hot at the same time
- Give the rice a quick but thorough rinsing in a sieve under cold running water.
- Now add the rice, water, and salt to a medium-size saucepan, and set it on a high heat. As soon as it comes the boil, drop the heat to low, and cover the pan with its lid.
- Keep the lid on, and let the pan slowly simmer on that low heat for 10 minutes until all the water has been absorbed by the rice.
- Now turn off the heat, give the rice a stir or two with a fork, and let it sit, steamily hot, under its lid for 5 minutes. That’s it, the rice is done ready for serving in a good-looking, warmed dish.