Musings on curry
I am a latecomer to curries, apart from the ubiquitous Thai green curries that sustained me for nearly a decade in Sydney. Growing up in rural Australia, I have no memories of family dinners in curry houses in Wagga Wagga or Bathurst and, apart from a delicious Burmese curry that Dad makes, they weren’t part of the home-cooking repertoire.
But when I moved to Dubai at the age of 29, a whole world of curries opened up to me. In a city where 51% of the population is comprised of Indians, 17% are from Pakistan and 9% are from Bangladesh, it was inevitable that I developed a taste for the curries I really didn’t know much about while I was living in Australia. In particular, the curries of Ravi’s, a Dubai institution that was about five minutes’ walk from where I lived, were life-changing. I had no idea how much I loved curry until then.
It would have been easy to go broke buying all my meals from Ravi’s and other local curry houses, so I was determined to learn how to make my own curries, particularly once I moved from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and transferred my curry habit to Tandoori Corner.
I Googled, I read, I watched cooking programmes, I asked questions, I figured things out, I went to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Agra, Jaipur, Bangalore, Mysore and the Udaipur jungle and discovered incredible regional curry variations. One of the brilliant things about living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi was the easy availability of curry spices – everywhere from big supermarkets to little corner stores – so I was quickly able to stock my pantry and start experimenting.
And that is why I am reluctant to post curry recipes. Every curry I’ve ever made is slightly different. It depends on what I happen to have in the cupboard, whether I fancy meat, seafood, paneer, vegetables… Do I want to add the creaminess of coconut milk (yes, quite often!) or create the intense heat of a vindaloo? Do I want to try and replicate something I enjoyed in a restaurant or freestyle and see what happens? I seldom measure ingredients – I just throw them into the pot, have a sniff and a taste and adjust accordingly.
The more I read about curries, the more I learn. It was a revelation to learn about dry-frying the spices and bay leaves to release flavour at the start of the cooking process. And last night, I discovered the power of adding a little vinegar to a Goan seafood curry – this was all thanks to Sam, my wonderful Munching Matilda partner. For nearly a fortnight, I fostered her beloved cat Lucy while she was house-hunting and she sent me a selection of curry spice mixes as a lovely thank you present.
I am pleased to report that Sam and Lucy the Boy Cat have now settled into lovely new digs and I am working my way through the curry spice mixes – they feature blends from across the world and I took a culinary trip to Goa last night. The spice mixes come with an information sheet to give you some guidance as to what to add to each blend and, because I can’t leave a recipe alone, I added tomatoes and vinegar to the suggested ingredients after doing a little Goan curry Googling.
When I run out of the spice mixes, I won’t be bereft because the information sheet tells me what spices make up each blend. I am confident I can replicate this, just as I did when I couldn’t find ras el-hanout in Sainsbury’s one day. Instead, I Googled “ras el-hanout” in the spice aisle, realised I had most of the ingredients at home already, bought those that were missing from my kitchen and got busy with a mortar and pestle when I got home.
For me, learning how to make curries is a lifelong process, one I hope continues for as long as I am able to cook. I still Google, read, watch cooking programmes, ask questions and figure things out. I pick up new tips and ideas all the time. No curry is the same, some work out better than others, but they are all a joy to make. I bang on a lot about how anyone can cook, but experimenting with curry cookery is a great way to gain confidence in the kitchen. The basics of dry-drying spices, adding oil, frying onions and garlic and tossing in whatever ingredients take your fancy – they’re all skills that are easy to master with a little practice, patience and maybe reading up on a few tips from far greater curry chefs than I will ever be.
Maybe one day I will be brave enough to publish a curry recipe of my own. In the meantime, I do know I’ve come a long way from being the wide-eyed 29-year-old who marvelled at cheap curries in some of Dubai’s more down-to-earth but absolutely brilliant restaurants back in 2006.
The was a marvellous restaurant in Hong Kong years ago called the SMI (Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia) specialising in SE Asian curries. So different from the curries from the sub-continent. It was a regular Friday lunchtime haunt. I so miss their wonderful chicken-on-the-bone curries; nothing has ever come close.