Untraditional Coconut Beef Curry

Note: This post is two years old, and for some unknown reason, was not published at the time. It was written back when I was still suffering from biliary dyskinesia, which is a fancy way of saying that my gallbladder didn’t work and hurt all the time, even though there were no gallstones in evidence. During this period, I did a lot of experimenting with using coconut milk in Indian curries instead of my usual dairy-trio of ghee, yogurt and milk or cream, because I had found that the saturated fat in coconut milk never awakened my angry gallbladder and made me pay for my flagrant disregard for its sensibilities with a painful assault on my health. At any rate, here it is, in its original form, unedited except for this explanatory note for long time readers who might well remember that I no longer have a gallbladder to complain about. Oh, and one more thing–the dish still makes a great curry–out of curiosity, I cooked it again a few weeks ago to see if maybe I had decided that it hadn’t tasted that good after all and that’s why I never posted it. But, no. It tastes just dandy, so we’ll just have to let the question of why it has languished in blog limbo for two years remain a mystery.

After my success with the recipe for Fragrant Coconut and Chicken Curry from Mangalore, which I adapted from Camillia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India, I wanted to see if I could do a similar curry with lamb.

Unfortunately, I had no lamb, but what I did have was a hunk of bone-in beef chuck, which I had intended to use for boeuf bourguignon. However, I wasn’t in the mood for French food, (with wine and bacon, both of which irritate my unhappy gallbladder) so I decided to make it into curry.

While beef is not eaten by devout Hindus in India, Muslims and Christians do eat it, especially in the northern areas of the country. It is less commonly eaten in the South, as I understand, but I suspect it is not unknown.

Zak was all about it, since, in his opinion, Indian food beats French food hands-down in the realm of tastiness, so I set forth to adapt the chicken recipe to one that would accentuate and complement the stronger flavor of beef.

The first thing I decided to do was to brown the bone along with the cubed meat and cook it in the pressure cooker along with the rest of the curry in order to boost the meaty flavor of the finished dish. Many northern style curries are cooked this way, especially with goat or lamb meat. If the meat is served boneless, bones are cooked in the curry and then fished out before serving, but if the meat is cut up on the bone, such as with goat and sometimes lamb meat, then the bones are just left in for service, and diners can eat around them.

Another change I decided on for the recipe was to the amount of cumin, used both as whole seeds and ground up into the masala paste. Beef, as I have noted many times before, tastes “beefier” when cooked with cumin. Something in the musky, lightly bitter seeds synergizes with the flavor of the meat and enhances it, magnifying the umami flavor immensely. The toasty fragrance of cooked cumin, whether it is pan roasted or fried in oil, also seems to cut through the strong odors associated with beef, and accentuates the delicious aroma of browned meat as the two cook together. It is a nearly magical combination in my mind, and I love using the two ingredients together any chance I get.

Another change in the spicing is my addition of a small amount of fennel seed to the masala.

Fennel is one of the sweeter spices, and while I love to use it in chicken, vegetable and fish dishes, I also find that if it is added in small amounts to meat dishes, especially lamb or beef, it brings a subtle, almost flowery fragrance to those dishes, which offsets the stronger, darker meat flavors. I use a small enough amount that it is never obvious that fennel is there, but it still makes a strong impact, giving a complexity to the masala, that might otherwise be lacking.

I also browned all of the onions before grinding them up into the masala paste, which gives this curry a deep mahogany coloring which I find appealing. This is a trick common to North Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisines–and I saw no reason not to use it here. I could have left some of the onions in their original thin slices in order to give the curry a bit more texture, but I wanted to use the onions to thicken the curry somewhat, and figured that a perfectly smooth curry sauce was fine.

I also used more chilies here, in three different forms–fresh, hot red chilies, dried hot chilies and Aleppo pepper flakes, all ground into the masala paste. These add heat, flavor and color–and I added sweet paprika to further boost the red coloration. This not only added a complex flavor–each chili not only adds heat, but each has a different fragrance and flavor, such as the sweetness and mild heat of Aleppo chili flakes–but it helped create the very appealing, rich mahogany color of the finished curry.

Finally, I used more curry leaves, knowing that their intense flavor would very much enhance the fragrance and flavor of a strong meat like beef.

Oh, and one more thing–as is usual with most curry dishes–this dish tastes even better the next day after being reheated!

This recipe could easily be adapted to lamb, but I would be even more interested in trying with either venison or goat meat, myself.

How did it taste? Well, Dan, Zak, Brittney and Kat were all highly in favor of it, so much so that I was asked to make it again soon. As for me, I am looking forward to teaching my readers a trick to use with the leftovers in my next post. Because, as delicious as leftover curry is simply warmed over, it is fun to take it and turn it into a different dish entirely.

Note: Two years later, I am rather stumped at exactly what that trick I was going to write about was. HOWEVER, I am pretty sure it is a trick I learned from the Pakistani/Bangladeshi couple I used to cook for as a personal chef. So, yes, having not shared that secret with my readers it the past, I WILL share it in the future. If it is indeed the secret I am thinking of…..

Untraditional Coconut Beef Curry

4 tablespoons canola or coconut oil
2 1/2 cups thinly sliced red onions
1 teaspoon salt
2 pounds bone-in beef chuck, cut into 1″ cubes, bone reserved
5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 inch piece cinnamon stick
3 teaspoons coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seed
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 large fresh red chili pepper
4-8 dried red chilies, depending on how hot you want your curry
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2-3 teaspoons sweet paprika
15-20 curry leaves, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 1/2 cans Mae Ploy coconut milk
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
salt to taste
1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish


Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed, wide skillet or pan. Add onions, and sprinkle with the teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, until they turn a nice deep golden brown. Remove from heat, scrape the onions into the bowl of a food processor, spice grinder, mixie or blender, and add the garlic, chilies, and the spices up to and including sweet paprika. Grind to a very fine, fragrant paste.

Put the pan back on the heat, add the beef, along with the bone, and cook, stirring, until it is mostly browned on all sides–with a bit of pink showing. Add the curry leaves, and the 1 teaspoon each of cumin and mustard seeds to the pan, and cook, stirring, until the mustard seeds start to sputter and pop. Add the spice paste, and cook, stirring, until the meat is fully browned and the spices are beginning to stick and brown to the bottom of the pan–about one or two more minutes.

Deglaze with some of the coconut milk, being certain to scrape all of the browned meat and spice paste bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour the contents of the pan into a pressure cooker, and stir in the rest of the coconut milk and the tamarind concentrate. Bring to a boil, lock the lid in place on the cooker, and bring to full pressure. Turn the heat down to low and cook for forty-five minutes.

Turn off the heat under the pressure cooker and move the cooker carefully off the warm burner. Allow it to rest, undisturbed so the pressure can come down naturally for about twenty minutes. Once the pressure indicator shows the pressure to be normalized, unlock the lid and remove it. Fish out the bone and either feed it to your dog or discard it, and stir in salt to taste.

Stir in the cilantro leaves right before serving.


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  1. Barbara – You had me right up to the part with the pressure cooker. Since I don’t have one what do I do? Let it simmer on the stove for a longer period of time?

    Comment by Maureen — April 21, 2011 #

  2. Yep, Maureen–let it simmer on low for around two to three and half hours depending on how tough your cut of beef is. You could even cook it in a low oven the way the French do for a braised beef.

    You will likely need more liquid, though. At least 1-2 cups more to allow for steam escape. Just play it by ear and add liquid as is necessary. You can use thin coconut milk or chicken broth or beef broth or stock….

    Comment by Barbara — April 21, 2011 #

  3. There are a lot of great beef dishes from Kerala, many of them involving coconut. http://blog.sigsiv.com/2008/04/kerala-beef-fry-beef-ularthiyathu.html is excellent, for example (traditionally eaten with parathas, but I prefer it with dal and chapatis)

    Comment by Martin DeMello — April 25, 2011 #

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