Cook Stew - Universal Method

by: Kuan Lee
Malaysian VSO Volunteer
Navrongo, Ghana '91-'93


This has been written for anyone who feels unable to cook quickly a basic meal that they and their guests will enjoy. The aim is not to provide recipes (although three are given as illustrations), but to show the general principles that are the basics of almost all curries, stews and soups.

Once the ideas have been grasped, you should be able to make up your own recipes with any possible combinations of locally available ingredients. You will see that anyone can make a curry, stew, or soup in one pot, on one stove, and in less than one hour.

The Theory

First, flavour your oil. To do this, fry in the oil what I shall call Class A foods (A for acrid) e.g. onions, ginger, garlic, and/or spices (see Table). These are physically hard, pungent and strongly flavoured.

Meat is then cooked in the oil before anything else. This is because meat needs the high temperature of the oil to brown, releasing the strong meat flavours. If tomatoes or other watery vegetables are added to the oil first, the water will reduce the temperature of the oil.

After the meat has been cooked, it will be sitting in a nice quantity of deliciously flavoured oil. This can be a dish in itself after adding salt to taste, or can be added to in order to make a more substantial dish.

If so, now is the time to add what I shall call Class B foods (B for bland): green vegetables, cooked beans and pulses, tomatoes, yams etc. i.e. everything not Class A or meat! (see Table) And they are usually soft, mild-flavoured, water-containing vegetables. Vegetables which take longer to cook e.g. okro, are put in before say, spinach, which cooks quickly. (I make an exception of tomatoes as I like them thoroughly boiled to allow their juices to mix; so I put them in early, but it is up to you).

Then, a final period of boiling to accomplish the following objectives: to ensure that the food is safe; to allow adjustment of desired thickness by adding stock (or water), boiling off, or adding flour; and to tenderise meat or vegetables.

Only at the end is salt added to taste.

Table: Class A (acrid) and Class B (bland) foods

Class A Class B
onions okro tomato paste
ginger herbs groundnut paste
garlic tomatoes any cooked beans and pulses
peppers yams fruits
spices potatoes green vegetables
vinegar stock/water
sugar etc.

The Practice

I have written out the basic structures for a curry and a stew. Actually, a curry is just a thick, oily stew with curry powder, and a soup is just like a stew but with much less oil and lots of water. Then I have included three example recipes to illustrate how to make recipes out of the basic structures. You can see how similar they are to cook, but they will taste completely different just because the ingredients are different, not because of the cooking method.

To cook an Every curry

Cook any (or all) items from Class A in oil until soft. Use lots of oil: 1/3 jam-jar to every lb of Meat, Beans or Whatever curry it will be. Add curry powder and fry for one to two minutes. For meat curries, now add meat to flavoured oil and fry until meat is cooked. Else and Beans or Whatever, and fry for one minute. Now add Class B items. Stir to prevent sticking and burning. Add a little water if necessary. Cook until mostly oil is left and/or meat is tender. Flavour with salt and pepper and/or Maggi sauce.

    Example curry: Beef curry

    Class A items: 4 onions, pepper to taste
    Class B items: 4 tomatoes.
    Other: 1 lb beef, 1/2 jam-jar oil, 1 tablespoon curry powder.

    • Chop onions, tomatoes and beef into small pieces.
    • Fry onions and pepper in oil until soft.
    • Add curry powder and fry for two minutes.
    • Add meat and fry until meat is cooked.
    • Now add tomatoes, stirring to prevent sticking. Add water if necessary but enough water should come from the tomatoes.
    • Cook until mostly oil is left and the meat is tender.
    • Season with salt and black pepper, and serve with rice.

To cook an Every stew

Cook any (or all) item from Class A in oil until soft. Be liberal with oil: 1/4 jam-jar to every lb of Meat, Beans or Whatever stew it will be. For meat stews, add meat to flavoured oil and fry until meat is cooked. Else add beans or whatever, and fry for one minute. Now add Class B items. Add sufficient water for desired thickness. Cook until meat is tender and/or stew is correct thickness. Add flour to thicken if necessary. Flavour with salt, black pepper and/or Maggi sauce.

    Example stew: Black-eyed beans in groundnut stew (vegetarian)

    Class A items: 2 large onions, ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground
    red pepper
    Class B items: Groundnut paste (according to taste), 1 tablespoon
    tomato paste, 1 bowl cooked black-eyed beans,
    2 large tomatoes, 1 1/4 pints water.
    Other: Oil

    • Chop onions and tomatoes into small pieces.
    • Fry onions, ginger, pepper until soft.
    • Add the black-eyed beans and fry for one minute.
    • Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste.
    • Dilute the groundnut paste with a little water and add to the pan.
    • Add the rest of the water, and adjust the seasoning.
    • Simmer for a few minutes or until tomatoes have dissolved.
    • Serve with boiled rice.

    Example soup:

    Class A items: 1 large onion
    Class B items: 2 tomatoes, 2 garden eggs
    Others: 1/4 lb meat, 1 1/2 pints water, a little oil.

    • Cut meat and vegetables into small pieces.
    • Fry the onion in the oil until soft.
    • Fry the meat until cooked.
    • Add the garden eggs, tomatoes and water.
    • Simmer until meat and vegetables are tender.
    • Season to taste.


The character of the curry or stew is determined mostly by the Class B ingredients. For example, if you use fruits, sugar and vinegar as your Class Bs, you will make a sweet and sour. If you use vinegar with your curry, you will improvise a tandoori. Using sage as your Class B herb with pork? Pork and sage stew! And so on. But for all of these three different dishes, you still begin with flavoring the oil, then adding meat, and then adding the rest.

Note that there are no essential ingredients, the amounts are never fixed. For instance, if you want a meat in tomato stew with your pasta, put is a lot of tomato paste, else leave it out! If you haven't any onions for Class A, use ginger. If you haven't any Class A items, leave the whole thing out, and just begin at the next stage e.g. frying the meat. I have even cooked meals with no Class B foods - what is basic fried rice after all but oil flavoured with onions, then used to fry boiled rice and salted to taste?

Appendix on Cooking Rice

To cook perfect, dry fluffy rice, put rice and water into the pot in the right proportion. Simmer and leave. When the water is all boiled away, turn off the heat, and the rice should be just right.

The trick is to know when the water is all gone. When the water is all removed, two things happen at the bottom of the pot: water moisture inside the rice grains superheat, causing small explosions which sound like pops; and rice in contact with the hot metal will fry, causing sounds like crackles. When the pops and crackles are heard, it is time to turn off the heat. They are soft, so you need to listen closely.

As for the correct initial proportion of rice to water, unfortunately it depends on type of pot, shape of pot, strength of fire, how much rice is being cooked etc. Clearly, no general rule can be given, and the correct proportion has to be found by trial and error. However, I would suggest the following procedure:

  • Put rice in pot.
  • Add boiling water to the rice so that the water level is above the rice by about an inch.
  • Cover the pot and place on gentle heat so that it simmers.
  • Never remove the lid - you will lose steam.
  • When the pops and crackles can be heard, remove from the heat.
  • Uncover to check that rice at the top is soft. If rice is still hard or bitty, add a cupful of boiling water, and replace on the heat until pops and crackles are heard again.
  • Repeat this last step as many times as necessary.
  • When rice is done, leave for 5 minutes, then fluff up rice with brisk whisks before serving.

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Last updated August 16, 1997.

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