Describing karhi to someone who isn't familiar without putting them off entirely isn’t an easy thing to do.
“It's an ochre-coloured soupy thing made of gram flour and sour yogurt.”
Karhi is so much more than the sum of its parts though. When my brothers and I were younger (but not smaller) it was one of the dishes we’d get when we were running low on funds which, let’s be honest here, was always. Ours was a thick Punjabi karhi, luminescent with turmeric and full of cakey pakoras which had soaked up the moisture and crumbled when you picked them up with a piece of roti. Other parts of the subcontinent have their own versions too, with tamarind, okra and jaggery all making starring appearances in the variations.
I used to wonder why the kids at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Primary used to know this one humble meal so well.
“I had a curry last night!” They’d inform me diligently.
Since then some light research has informed me that karhi was one of the first dishes British colonisers encountered when they arrived in the subcontinent. And so everything thereafter became curry. I’m not sure how valid this is, but it sounds fairly plausible at least.
Nowadays I like my pakoras only vaguely acquainted with the sauce, rather than in a symbiotic relationship with it. Plenty of people will disagree, of course. Like my mother, who watched me make it and with soya yogurt whilst oscillating between pity and stone cold rage. She still ate it though, begrudgingly.
Since the recipe is so simple it’s important to get the ingredients right - don’t be getting out your Greek yogurt. For this you'll need live set yogurt which can only be found in desi shops that have been selling three tubs for £1 for the past decade, miraculously impervious to inflation. The gram flour makes it taste quite rich already so sour yogurt is essential, or your karhi will be too thick and cloying.
Ingredients - serves 4
For the soup
500g yogurt mixed with 800ml water
150g sieved gram flour
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste
3 onions, finely sliced
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, minced
2 cloved of crushed garlic
Dried whole red chillis
Fresh coriander to finish
For the pakoras
150g gram flour
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 or 2 chopped green chillis
1. Using a large heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid, fry all three onions in oil, when browned remove a third for garnish and leave the rest in the pan. Add in the garlic, ginger and spices.
2. Whisk together the watered down yogurt and gram flour until there are no lumps. Pour into the pan and add the whole red chillis. Cover and leave to simmer on a medium-low heat for around 2 hours, stirring and checking regularly (you may need to add more water).
3. Meanwhile make the pakoras by mixing all of the dry ingredients and adding enough cold water to make a thick batter. Deep fry tablespoon-sized balls until golden brown, turning for even cooking and drain on paper towels.
4. The soup is ready when thickened. Taste it, it shouldn't have a floury texture when its ready so if it does - keep going.
5. Finish by adding the pakoras, fried onions and fresh coriander to the soup. Serve with boiled white rice or roti.