The rich, creamy sauce of a curry—whether ladled over rice, scooped up with nan, even eaten by the spoonful—sometimes seems more central to the dish than the meat or vegetables in it. This is true of familiar favorites like rogan josh, chicken tikka masala and butter chicken.
But there’s another, less familiar kind of curry, one that uses little, if any, liquid. These dishes don’t call out for steamed rice. They stand alone as a main course or side dish. These are dry curries—as opposed to those stew-like dishes, known as wet curries.
“In wet curries, definitely you would use things like coconut milk, cream, yogurt. And in dry curries, you would use less of these things,” says Vikram Sunderam, the James Beard Award-winning chef who heads Washington, D.C.’s Rasika.
In a dry curry, there is no sauce to spoon up. If there is one at all, Sunderam says, it will be thick—more like the sauce for a stir-fry than what a traditional curry calls to mind.
But a good dry curry shares one important characteristic with wet curries: “That all the spices and the flavors permeate the protein or the vegetables,” Sunderam says. “When it’s Indian food, that’s what you expect.” As the liquid in a dry curry evaporates, the proteins or vegetables become coated with the spices in the masala, so that each bite delivers fully spiced flavor.
He cites some classic examples: gobi matar, a turmeric-coated combination of cauliflower and peas; chicken pepper fry, a roughly sauced Southern Indian dish riddled with peppercorns and chilies; bhindi amchoor, sautéed or fried okra seasoned with tangy mango powder; and chicken 65, deep-fried chicken cooked in a fiery red, heavily spiced sauce.
Dry curries must be cooked with lower heat than wet curries. “The more moisture there is when cooking, you can cook it on a slightly higher heat,” Sunderam says. Thus, a dry curry—especially one with meat—could take longer to cook than a wet curry.
For our dry curry, we adapted a vegetarian classic: aloo faliyan, or potatoes and green beans. Segmented string beans mix with starchy potatoes, which excel at soaking up seasonings (usually cumin, chili, turmeric and garam masala). And because the vegetables are cooked in a dry skillet, they stay crisp.
Some recipes called for blanching the beans, but we streamlined by steaming them with cubed potatoes. Just four spices—cumin seeds, red pepper flakes, black mustard seeds and turmeric—plus shallot and fresh ginger provided a flavorful masala.
Tomatoes, which have lots of natural moisture, are common in dry curries. While we tried cooking them, we ultimately preferred fresh tomatoes, added off heat along with lemon juice, fresh cilantro, serrano chili and toasted cashews.