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The curry club

The great thing about words is that they don’t believe in boundaries. Some of our most used words — such as almari and kameez — have foreign origins. But we have lent our language to others as well. The mulligatawny soup is an amalgamation of two Tamil words — milagu and tanneer, or pepper and water. Another of our exports is the word curry. In India, it is hardly used at all. Yet, in Britain, it is a word for Indian food.

Curries, of course, thrive in other parts of the world, too. Southeast Asia, for instance, boasts of different kinds of curries. And my friend, Pradip Rozario of K.K.’s Fusion in Calcutta, has drawn up an interesting list of curries that he may soon be serving in his restaurant. He includes dishes from regions outside Southeast Asia as well — such as a Mediterranean whole baby roast leg of lamb and a tomato onion fish curry from Bengal.

I would rather focus on some of the curries of countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia this week. Particularly interesting is his recipe for a whole chicken cooked in a creamy spiced curry.

For this Balinese dish, you need 6tbs of peanut or vegetable oil, 1 finely sliced onion and 1 finely chopped onion, 1.5kg whole chicken, 1 clove crushed garlic, 1tsp cumin powder, a 2-cm piece grated fresh galangal, 1tbs coriander powder, 1tsp shrimp paste, 1tbs tamarind water, 4 crushed candle nuts in a paste, 1.5tsp chilli flakes, 2 cups coconut cream and salt. If you can’t get candle nuts, use Macadamia.

Now, in a frying pan, heat half the oil and fry the thinly sliced onion till it’s nice and brown. Strain and set aside. In the same oil, fry the whole chicken till evenly coloured, and then remove it. In a heavy saucepan, heat the remaining oil and fry the chopped onion until golden brown. Add the garlic and galangal, fry briefly and then add the coriander, cumin and shrimp paste. Fry for three minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the tamarind water, crushed nuts and coconut cream to the pan and bring to a boil. Add the chicken, fried onion, salt and chilli flakes, and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring and turning occasionally. The curry is now ready to be eaten.

The word curry is widely believed to have been derived from the Tamil word kari, another term for black pepper. In India, the word generally refers to gravies. Elsewhere in the world, a curry need not come with a liquidy gravy. Food historian K.T. Achaya says the Brits first used it to describe a south Indian spicy dish, but widened it later to include almost all Indian dishes.

I once saw an interesting old advertisement from the Raj days for a curry powder. It was called Tippoo Saib’s Indian Curry Powder — sold by Batty and Co., ‘pickle sauce jam and jelly makers of London.’ Curry powders to begin with consisted mostly of coriander, turmeric, mustard, ginger and fenugreek.

The Southeast Asian curries have no fixed ingredients — but make use of local spices such as pepper and chillies. Tamarind is the preferred souring agent for most dishes in Indonesia and Malaysia. “The curry means the same everywhere, but the ingredients are different,” says Chef Sujit Sinha of Calcutta’s Tangerine. “The curry in these countries has to have some coconut milk in them,” he stresses.

Author Madhur Jaffrey, who has written a very interesting book on the food of the region, points out that most people first prepare a spice base for the curry. Fresh and dry spices are pounded in a mortar and then fried in oil to rid the paste of its raw taste. This paste is then used to flavour dishes.

Take this recipe for fish and tamarind with coconut milk. Put fish fillets in a shallow dish and sprinkle with salt. Pour tamarind juice on the fillets and leave for 30 minutes. Grind some onion, ginger, garlic and chillies into a paste. Add ground coriander, fennel seeds and turmeric to the paste. Heat oil, fry the fillets for five minutes. In another pan, fry the spice paste for a few minutes, stirring all the time. Add coconut cream and simmer gently for a few minutes. Add the fish fillets and simmer for two minutes.

For Rozario’s recipe of a Malaysian curried chicken, place chicken cubes (500gm) in a dish with tamarind water (1 tbs) and water (1tbs). In peanut oil (1½tbs), sauté for three minutes one finely chopped onion, finely chopped garlic (2 cloves), finely chopped ginger (1-cm piece), Malaysian curry paste (of coriander, cumin and fennel seeds, dried red chillies etc, 1tbs), shrimp paste (1tsp).

Add the chicken. Stir fry for 30 seconds, then season with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Add coconut cream (1 cup). Let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Stir and add water every now and then. The chicken is now done, and may be served with steamed rice.

Among all the debates that move us (should India become a part of the nuclear group, should the Japanese be allowed to kill whales...), there is one about the origin and meaning of curry. One school of thought doesn’t believe the word curry came from India and point to a recipe book called The Forme of Cury, produced in England in the 1390s. The word, some argue, came from the French cuire — to cook.

To that I say, carry on with the debate. Or curry on, if you so wish.        

Tangy prawn noodle curry

Ingredients

1 small cucumber, finely sliced , 3/4th cup bean sprouts, blanched and drained, 2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage, blanched and drained, 4 cups coconut milk, 1 cup fish stock , 2 fresh hot red chillies, slit open and deseeded , 2cm fresh ginger, chopped, 4 spring onions, chopped, 2 cloves, garlic, sliced, Salt, to taste, Lime juice, to taste, 500gm fresh rice noodles, 500gm medium-sized prawns, shelled and deveined

Method

Arrange the cucumber, bean sprouts and cabbage in individual dishes and set on a tray as accompaniments. Bring the coconut milk to boil in a medium-sized pan and add fish stock, chillies, ginger, spring onions and garlic. Let it boil, and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Add salt and lime juice. Rinse the noodles in warm water and divide between heated serving bowls. Add the prawn to the pan and simmer for about 3 minutes, then divide between the bowls, and strain the hot curry gravy over it. Serve the tray of prepared accompaniments with the curry.

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