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Jalfrezi - fusion, leftovers - what's not to love?

The picture here is from The Times of India, and so, one assumes a truly authentic version. Well yes and no, because Jalfrezi is another one of those Anglo-Indian dishes concocted in the times of the Raj. Plus a touch of China too, because this is a stir-fry, which is not your standard Indian technique. Various sources will refer to it as a Bengali dish but that is really only because the centre of the British Raj in the nineteenth century when this dish came into being was Calcutta, as it was known then, in Bengal.

So what is it and how did it come into being? Some people credit Lord Marcus Sandys, a Governor of Bengal with its invention but this is unlikely, although he may have been the one to introduce a recipe into England. Really it came into being as a leftovers dish. The British loved their Sunday roasts, which they made their Indian cooks provide whilst sweltering in their rudimentary kitchens over a hot stove. Not just roasts - they liked huge celebratory meals. And because they were huge there were leftovers, which they exhorted their cooks - mostly from a particular Bengali tribe called the Mogs - to do something with them. Well the Indians didn't like bland English food so they did what many of us do nowadays with leftovers - threw them into a wok and stir fried the leftovers with spices, chilli and onion. Jal or Jhal means 'spicy' and frezi or fraizi means stir-fried.

"Jalfrezi is more similar in its cooking method to dry-fried Chinese dishes rather than the typical wet Indian curry. It's made by cooking spicy green chiles (I use Thai bird chilies, you can use serranos or jalapeños if you prefer) along with onion, garlic, ginger, cilantro stems and red peppers. The key to great flavor development is to cook down the aromatics in oil until almost all the moisture is driven from them and they become sticky and begin to brown. To this flavorful base, a few spices are added (hot paprika, cumin, coriander, and turmeric), along with chopped tomatoes." J. Kenji Lopez-Alt/Serious Eats

And your main ingredient whatever that might be.

These days it is found in virtually all Indian restaurants in Britain. So much so that it was voted the most popular Indian restaurant dish in Britain in 2015 - trumping even Butter chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala. I couldn't find it on Indian restaurant menus here in Australia, but I now actually think we have changed its name to Kadai - which is theme of the Indian wok - the dish it is cooked in. I realised this after checking out a few Indian restaurant menus, including our old favourite Haveli, where I thought I remembered eating this particular dish, and finding that there was no Jalfrezi on the menu of any of them, but there was often Kadai. I found somebody trying to explain a difference which was when you fried the paneer - they were talking about a paneer version - but honestly I think they were splitting hairs. Having now cruised the net for recipes I have come to the conclusion that whether you call it Kadai or Jalfrezi this is the fundamental leftover dish which is always different depending on what you have in the fridge.

That said, mind you, the things that crop up always are capsicum - although there is no agreement on which colour, chunky onions, tomatoes and chilli. Other spices - well that almost seems to be up to the individual cook and the main ingredient - well everything from the ubiquitous chicken to mushrooms and paneer. Patak's apparently make a jalfrezi curry paste, but it's not available here - well not in the big two supermarkets anyway.

As to technique, well that varies with the individual too, resulting in quite different levels of wetness at the end. On the right is a version cooked by Glebe Kitchen which is called Indian restaurant chicken jalfrezi. The cook demonstrates the dish as well in a tiny video at the bottom of the page. It's actually quite interesting because it does show you a very different approach which includes an onion based sort of stock or sauce, a ginger garlic paste and a spice paste. The recipe includes how to make these. It does mean that when you come to actually make the dish it's a very quick process, but you would have to factor in premaking your quick fixes. I have to say though, that the versions I have eaten in Indian restaurants do look much like this. Perhaps a little drier. One to try perhaps next time the family are over for dinner.

I checked all of my Indian recipe books and not one of them had a recipe for jalfrezi. Which to my mind demonstrates that this is not at all an authentic Indian dish. However I did find this Beef or lamb jhal faraizi on the Happy Foodie website which purports to be from Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Easy book, which I don't own. Leftovers yes - I see that - but as to the rest it doesn't look anything like the restaurant version above - or indeed any of the others that I found, varied as they were. It actually looks marginally more like Bubble and Squeak.

The most popular version was chicken of course, but there were many others covering all bases. Here are a few of what I found. The Hairy Bikers' Chicken jalfrezi was frequently mentioned and so I included it here. The BBC in the form of Simon Rimmer also had a Chicken jalfrezi as does Taste's Alison Adams; We're Not Foodies and Tea for Turmeric. As you can see there is quite a wide-ranging variety as to appearance.

In addition to the chicken versions I also found Lamb jalfrezi from Curry Pot; Paneer kadhai from SBS; Vegetable jalfrezi from My Ginger Garlic Kitchen and Chickpea, spinach and cilantro jalfrezi from the respected J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, which is why I included it even though it looks nothing like any of the others, and did not feature either capsicums or tomatoes, even though in the quote above he definitely says that capsicum and tomatoes are a necessity..

I thought that Jamie might be into this and indeed he was. He has four different versions, including this Pepper and chicken jalfrezi traybake which is a bit of an outlier, although an interesting one. I also saw some fritters and some pies elsewhere with Jalfrezi attached to the name of the recipe but I thought they were a bit far from the source.

I've been thinking of making a curry tomorrow so perhaps I'll have a go. I'll have to stop thinking how much capsicums cost though - and tomatoes too. Maybe the Lamb Jalfrezi - it looks the most appealing to me. I don't think they should be too runny. Charred at the edges and dryish but with succulent meat.

And that's the other thing that I should say about this dish that started out as something made up from leftovers. Nowadays the main ingredient is most usually not a leftover but is cooked from scratch in those spices in the wok. The technique will have therefore strayed a bit from the original, but that's what food does isn't it? Evolves. And this is such a perfect combination of fusion cooking - in this case of three different cuisines - combined with leftover cooking.

In the light of the fusion thing, perhaps I should include a version that comes from an Indian restaurant in England called Mughli via Luke Nguyen and SBS. It's a chicken kadai - not a jalfrezi and unlike all the others includes coconut cream and no capsicum. So another outlier. SBS has a video too.

So now I am really confused, because, delicious though this looks, it is really not jalfrezi, but neither is it what we here in Australia generally expect from a kadai dish. And I wonder why we Australians didn't stick to Jalfrezi as a name? Interesting. Total fusion, otherwise known as a lucky dip perhaps. Lucky dip in the sense that it was a lucky chance that made those Indian cooks do something different to leftover roast meat for their British masters. Dip because it depended on what was available and left over. And we're still messing with it.


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