Basic Onion-Tomato Gravy 101

In those glorious days when I was a full-time mom, I never planned a meal in advance. No,the 24 hour prep cycle for idli’s or most dosa’s doesn’t count. Menu was always decided maybe 30 mins before I went in to cook and almost always had a particular farmaish from the miya-ji.Most of the time the dinner plate reflected my disposition for the day. Tired, just roti-sabzi or dal-rice-pickle , Enthused- a full and I mean a full plate etc. In the transition from being a full-time mom to a full-time working mom, my cooking has lost that spur-of-the-moment magic. I have menu’s planned for the whole week. Thus, I have a grocery list of items I need from the grocery store. So, grocery shopping has lost its sense of discovery, too.

Not to put down on the planned menu thing, it’s actually a boon. I have a definite idea on the way home about what we are having for dinner and not wasting a lot of time in trying to decide what to cook. That time is then well spent with the kids. It ensures a home made meal everyday as opposed to I-am-too-tired-to-think-let-alone-cook,lets-order-some-takeout routine. Since, I prefer to use up all my fresh veggies and fruits within a week, planning a meal and then buying just those fresh ingredients really acheives that goal. Not to mention cutting the grocery bill in half. I mean, seriously, going to the grocery store without a list was eating up a lot into my household budget. That money is now used up much more wisely, like those pair of shoes that I just needed to have last week. 🙂 , just kidding. But, you know what I mean. So, really, after a couple of months of planned meals, I am really at a phase where I wonder how on earth I managed without it.

So, while I am not at all ready to let go planning weekly menus, I have started missing out the impromtu-ness of cooking. You know the feeling. It’s raining, lets deep fry something with hot chai or its cold, I want something robust that would fill me up and keep me warm. It was on the day of the later kind that I strayed from the menu and decided to cook up something indian , would fill us up good and warm us from the inside out. It’s a natural instinct for me to think north Indian food when I am in a mood like this. One of the reasons is the fact that it’s the only part of India that officially experiences cold weather in temperatures that we experience in Virginia (No, its really not that cold here as in say canada). So, a lot of there food is actually geared to warming you up. For example, the spices that they use like Cloves, cinnamon etc. or even their extensive use of onion go a long way in achieving that. Also, those creamy, thick gravies. Oh, yum. Now, that I had a general idea what I was craving for, you see the conundrum that I was in, don’t you. How does shopping according to a menu plan lets you adjust to a meal not on the menu? First of all, a well-stocked pantry. Second of all, well use of ingredients in hand. And finally, a well-stocked freezer. Oh, yes. My freezer is a dungeon full of ziploc bags labeled in a script that only I can understand, a mish-mash of frozen veggies and fruits and stuff that I make and freeze for the days like this when deviations happen. I decided to make a aloo-matar. Always, always have potatoes and frozen peas in hand. Also, some frozen homemade basic onion-tomato gravy paste. But, of course, it was not to be the usual aloo-matar. This was to be aloo-matar for the american-desi using ingredients that I had on hand and the desperate craving for a thick, rich, cream-laced gravy.

Freezable Onion-tomato gravy paste

After a long trial and error phase, I have narrowed down to a recipe for the basic gravy paste that works for me enough to blog about it. Just a few things to keep in mind, before you decide to follow this recipe to go the freezing way.

1. There is going to be a change in taste. Do not believe anyone who says there isn’t. This recipe narrows down that change in taste to a level where it is OK for me. Having said that, it is still a work in progress and if I hit upon some other way that minimizes it, I will post it.

2. I freeze this paste in an ice-cube tray and then store the frozen cubes in a ziploc Bag. I label and date it, note the specific ingredients I added to it. While this recipe is the basic gravy paste I use for many North-Indian dishes, some changes here and there turn it into paste used for more specific prepartions like dal makhanis or rajmas. It usually is just a change in the quantities of certain ingredients. But, once frozen, they end up looking the same. So, label includes specific information that would help me differentiate between them.

3. My general rule of thumb when freezing this myself is not let it go for more than 6 weeks. I end up using mine way before that time.

4. The one way I could minimize the change in taste that occured after freezing it was by increasing the amount of fat ( oil and ghee) in it. So, it is a toss-up between convenience and calories. Works for me. I am sure it still falls short on the calories level when compared to ready-made pastes. The recipe could use significantly less fat if it is to be used immediately. However, the final dish won’t require as much oil/Ghee because its already used here.

5. The biggest point to remember is to remove all moisture content from the onion and the tomatoes (Using more Ghee/oil helps there). As far as freezing is concerned, moisture is bad. so, remember to fry them till the oil separates.

6. Cool the masala completely before freezing. The condensed steam from the hot paste in the freezer results in water and icicles. Not good.

On to the recipe,now.

Slice and fry

3 medium-sized Onions

in a pre-heated mixture of

2 tbsp of ghee
2 tbsp of Peanut Oil (any other light flavored oil is good enough)

on medium heat, till the onions soften and wilt and golden spots/bubbles appear on them. Takes some amount of time and needs intermediate attention and stirring. You see the oil disappearing when you first add the onions and then re-appearing at about this stage. Add

6 cloves of Garlic, chopped coarsely
3 inch piece of Ginger, chopped coarsely

Fry for a few minutes, till the garlic and ginger turn golden in color. Keep watching, doesn’t take long. Add

6 plum Tomatoes OR 3 beefsteak Tomatoes, chopped coarsely
3 tbsp Tomato puree OR 1 1/2 tsp Tomato Paste

Again, needs time and attention and frequent stirring. The oil disappears and starts appearing again. Look closely to differentiate between the moisture of the tomatoes and the oil. You might have to fry it a little while longer even after the oil starts separating to completely eliminate moisture. One of the ways to tell there is no more moisture is that the onion starts changing color and getting brown as opposed to golden. In some cases, this is good and we will let it go till it reaches a good brown color (like say chana masala). In this case, we want it to be more golden than brown and hence will stop.

Remove from flame. Cool a little bit before blending it into a paste. Might require a little help in the form of water. Use the least you can and still make a smooth paste.


1 tbsp Ghee
1 tbsp Peanut Oil

on medium flame. Add

the paste blended as above, would be still warm

Fry till the oil separates, won’t take long. Add

1/2 tsp Turmeric/Haldi Powder
7-8 tsp Red Chilli /Laal Mirch Powder
5 tsp Coriander /Dhaniya Powder
3 tsp Cumin/Jeera Powder

Fry till the oil separates again. Add

1 1/2 tsp Garam Masala

Mix thoroughly. Cool completely. Clean and dry the ice tray. Pour 2 tbsp on the prepared paste in cube. Freeze. Next day(12-14 hrs later), remove from tray and store in freezable ziploc bags, back into the freezer.

Thought Process

1. I use less onion and more tomato and this recipe reflects that. Just the way my taste buds roll. Very much open to change, though.

2. I use a combination of fresh tomatoes and tomato paste or puree. I prefer the tanginess of the fresh tomatoes that is noticably absent in the puree or paste. However, the puree or paste act as a thickener for the gravy and results in a smoother, thicker gravy.

3. I prefer to fry the sliced onion and chopped tomato and then make a puree of it as opposed to making a paste and then frying in oil. I just find the bhunoing part in the first one is far less than in the second one. By following this method, I fry, make paste and then fry again for a little while. Might seem like a lot of oil, but remember, if you make a paste first before frying, you have to start with double the quantity of oil to begin with. Otherwise, you end up with onion paste that is kind of steamed/braised instead of fried. That’s because it will cook in its own liquid dropping the temperature of the oil and not fry in the hot oil which dries up its liquid almost immediately. It will still be edible, but not conducive to good freezing as it would still have moisture in it. Remember, Moisture bad for freezing. Either way fat content remains the same.

4. Resist the temptation to replace the ghee in the recipe with oil. Ghee lends a lot of flavor to the paste as opposed to just oil. If you are counting your calories, reduce it and replace with oil but try not to completely eliminate it. If you do eliminate it, when preparing the final dish, use a little ghee. But, use ghee somewhere, for crying out loud.

5. If you were using the above recipe to use immediately, you would add salt with the tomatoes to help the tomatoes release their moisture. However, when I plan to freeze it, I avoid adding any salt to it. Salt would be added while making the final dish.


21 thoughts on “Basic Onion-Tomato Gravy 101

  1. Thats a lovely post and a great idea of basic gravy. I never plan, so I end up wasting a lot of time thinking about the menu. I am going to follow your method of planning ahead when I start working from next week. I am sure it saves a lot of time.Last few weeks, I too made grocery list and as you said it has saved a lot of money. I used to get a mild heart attack by looking at the grocery bills before that :D. May be I should make a habit of writing grocery lists.

  2. Vee….. I saw myself when I was reading this post 🙂 I went thru the same experience as you and now that I plan for the whole week I have an empty fridge by the weekend again 😀 Less wastage and its the money spent wisely 🙂

    I liked your idea of freezing the gravy in ice cubes….. till now i used to store it in one big box and then everytime keep fighting to break the ice chunk.:) Now I am going to try your method. 🙂

  3. I know,Coffee. It was a big jolt to find out how much I was spending on food in the name of “stocking the pantry”. Now, even with a fully stocked pantry, my grocery bills have literally cut into half. It is not that I am spending less on food . It just opens up possibilities, like sticking to the high end items like the really good olive/coconut oil as opposed to the OK ones, etc. It’s Great!!

  4. I am a working mom … I plan on my way to pick up the kids, I plan on the way to work … my brain is always planning, I am so used to planning that come Friday I am making the grocery list.. what to cook, what to pack and what to chop. I can totally relate to your posts. Lovely idea to freeze the gravy.

  5. I know what you mean, krithika. Life is suddenly all about grocery list, to-do list’s, this list, that list .. :). My fridge is covered with such lists. Also, on my fridge is the week’s menu, complete with instructions of what has to be done today to make sure dinner is cooked the next Day. This way, hubby can pitch in if he comes home first!.

  6. hey vee i like your blog and i loved this post about planning – i have tried so many times and failed miserably! but you have inspired me to try again. also i love your instructions – so perfectly thought out.

    just one request – reading white on black is sooooooooo difficult – could you please please please change it to black on white – or any other dark font on light background? please?


  7. aww…i ‘m too late for the black on white…that’s fun for writing letters too! 🙂 vee! nice work finding an efficient way to make quick curries!…i myself have gotten into a habit of cracking several coconuts at once and dealing with the shredding mess and freezing it in one-cup quantities…labels labels…oh yeah! but i have to admit i laughed when you said “but use ghee somewhere, for crying out loud..” hahaha….but i couldn’t agree more!
    thanks again for introducing me to besan ladoos last diwali… 🙂 unfortunately i made them for christmas too and i am getting a ladoo derriere;-)

  8. Dear ?

    Do you know of any site where i can get hindi ( or indian) names of food items like seeds, vegetables, fruits etc. i have cross many sites which give some name i need a complete list.

  9. Pingback: Aloo Matar « Past, Present and Me

  10. there is no all indian gravy like makhani gravy ,haryali gravy saffron gravy

    Not sure what you are trying to say here. The Basic Onion-Tomato gravy is definitely not an all-indian gravy and 90% of the gravy dishes on my blog would attest to that. 😀
    I notice the xamples you give are all North Indian Influenced gravies. There is a whole lot out there south of north,too. Makhani and Haryali Gravy are mostly restaurant specials, Saffron is Kashmiri, Coconut is Konkani, Peanuts+Coconut is hyderabadi, the list goes on.

  11. Hi Vee,
    Being a full time New mom,cooking became difficult for me too.Your recipe helped me lot.Whenever I used to make this gravy,it turned out bitter.Now I understood what mistakes I was doing.The recipe was a hit.Thanks a lot.

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