Curry is a mystery to me. It is not one of my native foods, so to speak. I don’t think I ordered a meal containing curry until I was in my 30′s, and I surely never cooked with it. It was simply not in my view. My mother-in-law used to mix bottled curry powder with mayonnaise to make a dip for chilled artichokes. It is a great little trick for an appetizer. But even that positive experience didn’t nudge me out of my comfortable culinary inertia. Truth be told, I have long believed that curry was an actual “thing” or a spice. It comes in a jar marked curry, after all.
But, I’ve been keeping my eyes open lately. Since I met you all, I’ve paid more attention and read more labels. I’ve read hundreds of cookbooks and magazines and I’ve been blinded by the wonder of it all. And while the exposure to cultures and practices and habits and tastes can make the world seem so big, at the same time it shows you that you likely have many of the ingredients for international recipes right at your finger tips.
Curry is not “a” spice. It is a mix of spices. And it is different, wildly different, depending on where you travel. Many regions in Asia have their own mixes called curry that have differing predominant spices and flavors. Indian curry is perhaps the most well known, but there are countless types of “Indian curry.” And, there are styles of curry from Bangladesh, Kashmir, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Japan, and other countries and regions. It seems that at some point British interests labelled all of these spicy, punchy, foods as curry. It is a shortcut for a million different dishes. Curry spice mixes, as found in the grocery store aisle, seem to be a Western notion, also. Which is too bad, really. Because this whole time, had I awakened to this fact, I could have been playing with curries instead of assuming that it was one thing that would always taste the same no matter what. Here is a great article on the British love of curry. Don’t skip the comments, as some of the personal stories are charming.
But the interesting fact remains that the very word, and the dishes as created in Western kitchens are an interpretation of a region’s cuisine. Some academics would call “curry” a completely British invention…not that they invented the combinations of flavors, but that they brought it out of India to the West as a concept and a whole world of diners were introduced to it through British eyes and interpretations. This is a VERY amateur interpretation on my part. But it seems slightly akin to how we Texans have come to adore Mexican food and call a huge array of dishes “Mexican Food” and have created out of it our own version called “Tex-Mex.” And, just as I have traveled to Mexico to have enlightening meals which demonstrated that my notion of “Mexican Food” paled in comparison to the real thing, I suppose traveling to India and eating authentic Indian cuisine would also be an awakening.
There is this huge variety of spicy dishes created in India and the connected regions that we would call curry and there is the British interpretation of these dishes that is also known generally as curry. To confuse matters even more, it seems the spices are called curry, and the finished dish is called a curry, as well. Confusing but delicious, indeed, but you can learn volumes about the British Empire, history and culture, through the idea of curry, and I love learning about history through food. Thus my fascination with Foodways Texas and the Southern Foodways Alliance. What better way to learn, I say.
I’m happy the blinders are off and I have embarked upon my first honest to goodness curry dish. Don’t ask me if you can use the spice bottle that reads “Curry Powder” on the label. My answer will be “to each his own,” because that seems to be the real world of curry. To each his own. And even if you follow this list to a T, yours might taste quite different than mine based on the pungency of your spices. I have chosen to play here with this dizzying array of spices: turmeric (note the yellow hue of the dish), coriander, cumin, cayenne, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves and mace. How traditional is this mix? I don’t know. You tell me. I’m just starting this adventure. There is nothing wrong with the mixes, by the way. There is even a reference in The White House Cookbook of the 1800′s to using curry powder. It has a long tradition even in the U.S., but I think it is fun to break down the powder, if you will.
How old is the Cardamom in your drawer anyway? I’ve had spices older than my children that I have finally thrown out recently. Spices that old have no oomph. The essential oils that make them interesting are volatile and once they dissipate you are left with a mere ghost of the spice. If you bought all these at once, you would be sore with me. Replace a few spices now and again. Cook with them on purpose. Find dishes to celebrate your new acquisition. Also, consider whether you have a nearby store that sells spices by weight. A tablespoon of each of these spices purchased from a bulk aisle will cost a fraction of what ten new bottles will.
A word on Cardamom, incidentally. If you are not using ground cardamom, it comes in a pod. At first I thought the pod was the spice. But it is merely a shell. Crack it open and there are little black seeds inside. Smash up the black seeds and you have the spice. If you are using fresh from the pod Cardamom, you will not need a full half teaspoon.
Polenta is not the most traditional of accompaniments for curry, it seems. But, it sounded like a great idea. And I truly love this dish. I made a curry puree and then used half of it in the polenta and half of it in the chickpeas. So the flavor is consistent between the two components, but the texture and the temperatures are very different. The crispy edges of the fried polenta was key to me. I suppose that part of the history of curry is taking a tradition from another place and bringing it home to make one’s own. And polenta is a great friend of the budget-minded. It is just a terrific component for a number of meals. I topped this dish with goat cheese the first time that I made it and feta the second time. I think the goat cheese wins by a nose.
The preparation of this dish has two phases. First, you prepare the curry puree and the polenta. Then the polenta rests in the refrigerator. This beginning part takes time. Once you have this done, however, you can have this dish on the table in 10 to 15 minutes. So, feel free to make the spice puree and the polenta loaf on one day and keep it in the refrigerator to serve for lunch the next.
Recipe: (Serves 4)
1 apple, cored and cut into pieces
½ onion, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoons olive oil
Curry Spice Mix:
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
¼ teaspoon ground mace
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
⅛ teaspoon ground dry mustard
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons brown sugar
½ cup coarse cornmeal or “polenta”
15 ounces canned chickpeas, drained
4 ounces goat cheese (or feta), crumbled
1. If using all ground spices, combine them in a small bowl with the sugar. If using some whole spices, grind the spices in a mortar and pestle or cleaned electric coffee grinder. Then combine all of the spices and sugar in a small bowl.
2. In a food processor, combine the apple, onion, vinegar, olive oil and all of the spices and sugar. Process until pureed. Place the curry puree in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Allow it to simmer lightly for 10 minutes. The temperature should be low enough that all the liquid does not evaporate.
3. In a glass measuring cup, combine half of the curry puree and enough water to make 2 cups of liquid. Store the remaining puree in the refrigerator to cook with the chickpeas later. Bring the water and curry mixture to a simmer and slowly add the cornmeal. Simmer for 25 minutes, stirring continuously. Spread the mixture into a lightly greased loaf pan. Allow it to cool to room temperature. Cover the polenta with plastic wrap and then place it in the refrigerator to chill for at least two hours.
4. When you are ready to serve, remove the polenta from the refrigerator to warm slightly. Heat the drained chickpeas in a pan with the remaining half of the curry puree. Cut the polenta into four equal portions and remove them from the loaf pan. Place 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet. When the oil is hot, place the squares of polenta in the skillet and cook until nicely browned. Turn them and continue to cook until they are browned on the second side and warmed through. To serve, place a polenta square on a plate and top with one-fourth of the chickpeas. Top with crumbled goat cheese. Serve with a salad.
Other fun articles about history and curry:
The Last Days of the Raj: Food in British India by The Greasy Spoon
The Oriental Club’s Mid-19th Century “Mutton Curry” by British Food: A History
Sake Dean Mahomed: The Man Who Opened Britain’s First Curry House , Nearly 200 Yars Ago by Martin Hickman in The Independent
You could google “Britain” and “curry” and read all day long. There are numerous books which have been written on the subject, as well. I could easily fall under the spell of curry as I did caviar. My nightstand would be toppling. I might just have to do that.
Finally: It is not strictly true that I have never made a curry dish. I have dabbled with other spice mixes like Garam Masala in a dish called Kheema Masala. I believe that this preparation could be considered a curry. I have yet to figure out the boundaries of all of these dishes. But Garam Masala is another spice mix worth considering, as is my recipe for grilled Na’an.