Hot But Not Obscene

Show me the person who does not like a well-made curry and I’ll show you a person who has never eaten well.

There, I just had to get that off my chest. Now, let’s proceed to more serious matters.

A few days ago I started looking for a definition of “curry”. I mean, given my background as a researcher, I do believe we need to understand the notions or concepts we employ.

So, when we use the concept of a “curry”, what exactly are we talking about?

But, sadly, with my deadline looming today, I am no closer to finding a clear and concise definition.

I am beginning to suspect that curry is like pornography, and that, I, like Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, will have to concede: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced …[b]ut I know it when I see it”.

If you think about it, the similarities are numerous. First, there is use of location to name and contextualize the entity. A quick internet search revealed that ‘Punjab’, ‘Madras’, ‘Goa’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’ ‘Caribbean’ and ‘Durban’, are no longer used exclusively to describe the origins of spicy culinary delights.

Which brings us to the second similarity: the adjectives. ‘Hot’, ‘spicy’, ‘exotic’, ‘tart’, ‘wet’, ‘dry’  – what do you think? – movies, pictures, or curries? Well, you get the point.

Like the naughty business, curries have become truly global delights.

From ancient India across to South-east Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean the curry has planted its root (no pun intended), and spread its ever-evolving canopy.

As local cultures started to adopt the curry, new varieties were created based on local ingredients, food customs and cooking techniques, making it even more difficult to find a universally acceptable definition. On the upside, however, today more than ever before, there is a curry for almost every conceivable taste … as is the case with the naughty business off course.

Some like theirs with lots of chunky meat, others prefer only chicken. There are those who like it saucy and wet, others like it dry and less saucy. Others yet, do only vegetables.

But, I think now is a good time to part with the obscene and proceed with the hot.

A British movie reviewer once claimed that, “even when porn is bad, it is never disappointing”. I beg to differ. Even though my own position toward pornography can best be described as aggressively ambivalent, I cannot stand a bad curry. It is always disappointing. Period.

You see I grew up with bad curries. Usually made of minced meat, some frozen vegetables and store-bought curry powder in a yellow tin that consisted mainly of turmeric powder. As a result, these curries were almost tasteless and ever so slightly bitter. And always, always, always disappointing.

Those who commonly accredited themselves with fine palates hid the turmeric aftertaste with sticky sweetness, mostly by adding apricot jam.

Such was the horrible choice, the bitter curries of the ordinary folk served at the athletic meetings, or the overly sweet curries of the snobs that won the prizes at the local church bazaar. It took me long time to get over my distaste for curries.

All good curries have two elements in common: good quality ingredients, especially good quality spices, and a good cook that understands the spices.

I am ever so often asked about spices: what to use, where to find it, how to store it, how to use it and how to mix it.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Here is a list of dried spices that I have in my kitchen: cardamom pods (black and green), cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds (black and yellow), all spice berries, dried mace, dried curry leaves, bay leaves (fresh and dried), dried chillies, turmeric powder, tamarind paste, saffron, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cassia bark, paprika, nutmeg (whole and powdered), fennel seeds, cloves (whole and powdered), pepper corns (black, pink and white) and a variety of spice mixes such as garam masala and leaf masala.

The basic ones I make myself, other that require hard-to-get ingredients I buy from a spice dealer in Cape Town.

As far as possible always buy your spices whole and store them in an airtight contained such as a glass bottle with a screw top.

Before use, dry fry your spices at about 120°C until they release their fragrant oils (let your nose guide you it may take up to 20 minutes) and then use a dedicated spice grinder or pestle and mortar to grind them into a fine powder. Be careful with mustard seeds, they pop and spit.

The powder could also be stored in airtight containers, but would not last as long as the whole spices.

My favourite spice mix is garam masala, which is used as flavour base for many curries. This mix does not contain chillies but is considered “hot” because the spices heat the body.

Here is how I make mine: 30g green cardamom pods, 2 cinnamon sticks (broken), 20g cloves, 5 dried bay leaves, 15g mace (whole), 2 nutmegs (whole), 30g black pepper corns, 200g cumin seeds, 50g coriander seeds. Dry roast these and then grind to a powder. Add toward the end of the cooking time for extra flavour.

Someone who missed the British curries she grew fond off requested this week’s recipe. Chicken Tikka Masala. The most popular curry dish in England. In fact, an estimated with one in every seven curry dishes ordered is Chicken Tikka Masala. Devised for Western palate, it is not fiery hot making it an ideal introductory dish for curry novices.

It requires the chicken to be marinated and cooked separate from the sauce, which prevents the chicken from becoming over-cooked and dry and thus ruining the dish.

Now, after writing all this, I feel at peace not being able to define what is curry is. Whether it is a reference to India, ancient or pre-partition, the inclusion of certain spices or reference to the volume of sauce, it does not really matter. You’ll know it when you see it. It is enough for me to know that even though it is always hot, it is never obscene.

There, enjoy your food.

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