Thursday, May 7, 2009
Curries scare the be-geezus out of me.
The curry is the backbone of Indian cooking. Ladle a spoonful into your mouth and a Bollywood musical number verily opens up before your eyes, rickshaw gas fumes flood your nostrils and the soliciting calls of street-hucksters ("hey madam! take, for 20 rupees only!") ripple through your memory's ears.
But curries are wicked hard to make. Which is why I turn into a little girl in front of the shopping-mall Santa when I think about them: "Mummy! I'm scaaaaaaaaaaaaaaared!".
Like the countless myths about India itself -- no, it isn't this magical, spiritual shangri-la where everyone does yoga, finds their third eye and lives happily ever after with each other; no, visiting an ashram doesn't mean you've experienced India; no the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism isn't a peaceful place where people aren't corrupt or violent or obsessively caught up in expressing superiority over others (caste system); no we aren't all born with the kama sutra ingrained in our DNA; and NO, we don't ride around on elephants all day (seriously, my acupuncturist asked me that last one) -- there are a lot of myths about curries too!
First off, there is no such thing as curry flavour or curry powder, at least not in India. "Curry powder" is a shortcut melange of spices produced mostly for/by the Western market, which I'm not saying is bad; heck I used it in my curried popcorn!
It's a quick fix, it usually tastes alright but all I'm saying is... it's not authentic. Flip through any Indian cookbook and you'll find 6-kazillion different variations of spices, all under the label "curry". In fact, "curry" just means "sauce". Curry leaves, which you'll find frequently used in South Indian cooking, do not make curry powder. There are, however, a number of spice-mixes or masalas (eg. bafaat powder, stew powder, chaat masala, chole masala) that Indian mums use frequently.
Oh which brings up another point. Masala is an Indian spice mixture, wet or dry. Marsala (with an "r") is a sweet wine. Note the difference. Tattoo it in your memory banks. Don't do it again.
Now onto the biggest secret about making a curry, one that I just figured out a few years ago.
You can have every ingredient on hand, every spice, every piece of garlic minced to the right size... but if your technique is off, your curry is a goner. It's one of those "it's all in the wrist" kind of things, a kind of intuition that (annoyingly) only comes from being under the watchful eye of a skilled mentor, and years of practice.
Mum's wrist knows all there is to know. Having cooked for one family or another from a young age, her wrist is all, "go ahead! Blindfold me! I can STILL do it!". It's not just a matter of memorizing recipes or knowing which spices sing together in both delectable harmony and yummy dissonance... it's knowing how to saute the onions just so, how to "fry" the masala until that mystical mature state, how to bloom the spices enough that they lose their bitterness but too much so they taste burned.
Basically, it's the kind of thing that no cookbook can teach you.
It's the kind of thing I should have learned from my mum. But as much as I like to rewrite history, I didn't spend a lot of time in the kitchen with mum in my formative years.
Instead, I was watching "Dallas". Truly. I love Dallas. JR EWING! GENIUS!
You're not going to be great at it, at first. But you will get better. Being a pompous butt, I thought I had the upper-hand, that somehow being born in India, having uttered my first affluvia-covered scream in Bombay, having eaten curries practically every day of my life until I was 18 -- oh, I thought that the curry would just fall together effortlessly under my hands. Oh no. So wrong.
Happily, I think I'm getting the hang of it. There's something distinctly old-school about it -- you have to be patient, attentive, alert... No, you can't check Facebook in between. You can't change your kid's diaper. You can't crack open a beer -- well ok, I take that last one back. There's always time to crack open a beer! And you'll need it! Ha!
So here's some of the techniques I've figured out. Feel free to comment with more!
This was the first thing Mum allowed me to do in the kitchen. I hated it. I thought she had given me the most mindless and boring task but I realise now that she actually entrusted the very basis of the curry to me! Well-fried onions are the foundation of most every curry.
Take your time with this part, and don't let them burn. You're looking for your onions to turn a deep dusty pink, then golden-brown (but not crispy), and smell sweet. You can make this happen by tamping them down in the center of your pot, allowing them to cook for 30 seconds or so until they get a nice crust, then re-stir and repeat. Don't undercook them -- not only will your curry taste weak and thin, the onions themselves won't dissolve, so you'll end up chewing little pieces of onion. Which isn't that great. Use red onions -- we grew up with the smaller, squat versions of the ones we get here in the States; I find them slightly sweeter and more assertively onion-y than the white or yellow ones. If that's all you have, no big deal.
BLOOMING SPICE POWDERS
You won't find this step in this recipe, but you'll find it in others. Spice powders need to bloom in oil, releasing their flavours and cooking out their "raw" flavour. I also find that blooming the spices gets rid of that silty-powdery texture too. But maybe that's in my head. :) Blooming is just a fancy term which means that you will stiry-fry the spices (added to your sauteed onions, or just to the oil itself) for about 30 seconds, until you can really smell their bouquet. Don't fry them too long, or else they'll burn and your curry's done for. You'll often find that a recipe will often tell you to add tomatoes after you've cooked the spices -- that cools the whole thing down so the spices don't burn. If you're worried about burning them, you can do what my mum advised: add the tomatoes first, let them get a little mushy, and then add your spices. They're less likely to burn that way.
FRYING THE MASALA
This is the trickiest step, yet another point where your curry can either soar, or sink!
Some curry recipes will require you make a wet masala; throw some onions, green chilies, tamarind, tomatoes or what have you, in a blender or food processor, and hold that button until it's smooth. Or you can kick it old-school, like my aunt still does in Mangalore and use a masala stone:
It's a great workout! But no fun!
It'll be a bit watery in the blender, but once it hits the warm pan (medium heat), the water will evaporate, the masala will tighten up, deepen in colour, and it'll start to smell like an Indian kitchen in your house! You'll want to keep cooking and tossing it until you see tiny droplets of oil forming on the surface of the masala. It'll move around the pan more fluidly too, and when you do move it around, you'll see a thin trail of oil, kind of like that silvery stuff snails leave on the ground. That's the best way I can describe it. Mum -- have any suggestions on this step? I'm still learning this one.
After this point, you're home free.
This week, I decided to tackle the ol' curry. I'd made a few before, and each one is getting a little bit closer to my mum's style -- so I'm encouraged. This one is what I'm calling Baby's First Curry! It's relatively easy, as long as you have a good blender or mini food processor. Let me know if you try it.
Baby's First Chicken Curry Tomato-Poppy Seed Chicken Curry
1.5lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs (breasts will dry out)
1 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 bay leaves
5 cloves garlic
4 chiles de arbol
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp honey
14.5 oz can whole tomatoes
1 tbsp white poppy seeds (you can find 'em at the Indian shoppe), blended in 1/4 cup milk
(OR, bypass the poppy seeds & milk, use 2 tbsp yogurt)
1) Heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil in a large deep pot over medium heat. Add onions and bay leaves. Saute until pinkish-golden brown.
2) Meanwhile, in a blender or food processor, whiz together garlic, chiles, ginger, turmeric and paprika with a little water until as smooth as possible.
3) Once onions are cooked, add the masala from the blender. Cook, stirring often until deepened in colour, and oil droplets appear on the surface of the masala.
4) Add honey and chicken, coating the meat with the masala. Cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes until masala sticks to the chicken.
5) Pull tomatoes out of the can and squish into the pot, crushing them with your hands. You should have about 4 or 5 tomatoes in that can. Add a splash of tomato juice too. Stir, bring to a simmer, semi-cover and cook about 20 minutes until chicken is tender and gravy has thickened. Turn heat down, add either poppy seed-milk mixture or yogurt and stir gently. Taste for seasonings. Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro and serve over rice.