When 'Comfort Food' Is Mom's Curry
Cooking the pungent dish reminds a writer of her girlhood in Bombay
BOSTON — WHEN my friends rave about the curry at a certain Indian restaurant, I usually just smile. How can I tell them that nothing beats Mom's home cooking?
But this doesn't mean that good curry can't be made abroad. In fact, in the delicate art of making spicy, tangy curries, my friends may have an advantage over my mother.
For one thing, food processors are as common here as traffic jams are in my hometown, Bombay. When Mom wants to grind the spices and ingredients for a curry paste, or masala, she must do it the old-fashioned way. The process may be long, but the result is mouthwatering.
When the sharp aroma of roasted cumin seeds and other spices permeated the house, I would know that Mom's work had begun. In our home, curry was a meal for Sundays and special occasions, in part because of the labor involved.
Pushing a heavy stone rolling pin over a grooved stone tablet, Mom would crush the spices into a fine powder. Then she would add the tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and onions, reducing all of us in the kitchen to appreciative tears. As a girl, I would perch myself on a kitchen stool and watch the whole process with fascination. But as I grew up, this grinding task was often mine.
Fortunately, Mom taught me the most important lesson of all: how to roll the pin without crushing my fingers in the process. "It's all in the flick of the wrist," she would explain, demonstrating the correct technique while I would take a moment to rub the sting out of my hands.
After grinding the spices and ingredients into paste, Mom would pour the mixture into a frying pan, stirring occasionally to keep it from burning. Some say the omnipresent smell of quietly bubbling curry paste is almost as good as the taste itself.
My husband and I were treated to a brief taste of Mom's homemade curry this summer, when my parents were visiting. In one last dash, she cooked up what seemed like enough curry paste to fill our freezer for several generations. (Alas, we consumed the curry in a few short months.) Carefully, we took notes, watching her every move like anthropologists, and jotting down every ingredient, although never in exact measurements.
Fortunately, Mom agreed to use our food processor, which cut her preparation time in half. These appliances are becoming more available in Bombay and other big cities across India. Other timesavers such as pre-chopped vegetables and ready-to-use sauces are also making life easier for urban cooks who don't have the time for all the chopping, peeling, and (ouch!) rolling.
When I think of the time it takes to prepare even the simplest meal in India, it amazes me that Mom was able to cook for us at all. Shopping in Bombay can take all morning, with a trip to one shop for spices, another for fresh vegetables, and a butcher's shop for meat. All-inclusive supermarkets like those here in America are still years away.
Perhaps this is why Mom enjoys shopping here. On her first visit to the local supermarket a few years ago, her eyes widened at the rows of cookies, cereal, and canned vegetables. Of course, she missed Bombay's dizzying array of fresh produce, from mangoes and coconuts to dozens of types of gleaming red and green chiles. And even the best American gourmet food markets cannot match the variety of fresh spices most Indians demand. (She also missed the convenience of vendors delivering fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk to her doorstep.)
But take heart, adventurous cooks; you can find all the ingredients for a basic Indian curry by shopping at gourmet food stores and sophisticated supermarkets. And those who live in bigger cities can often find Indian groceries that stock spices like asafetida, exotic fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade sweets, and even Indian junk food.
When I visit Indian markets, I like to take lingering walks through the aisles, listening to Hindi music playing in the background and surreptitiously scanning the headlines in the Indian gossip magazines.
I cannot in good conscience advise you to abandon the fine Indian restaurant around the corner, but remember that it is not the only source of Indian cooking. Just stock up on the essentials, and you can add a knockout curry to your repertoire.
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
5 dried red chiles
1 cup cashews
1 cup peanuts
5 tablespoons sesame seeds
3 large onions, quartered
4 tomatoes, quartered
4 cloves garlic
1-1/2 inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 can coconut milk
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup hot water
1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1-1/2 teaspoons chili powder
2-1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 lb. lamb, cubed (or substitute fish, chicken, beef, vegetables)
In a frying pan, roast all dried ingredients (coriander, cumin, chiles, cashews, peanuts) until the spices turn a shade or two darker (3-4 minutes), stirring constantly so they don't get singed.
Add sesame seeds during the last minute and stir to keep them from burning. Turn off the heat and let the spices cool. Grind them in a food processor to a fine powder.
Gradually add onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and coconut milk to the food processor and blend the mixture into a paste.
In a large frying pan or wok, preferrably nonstick, heat the oil and fry the paste, turning the mixture often so it doesn't stick to the pan. In a cup, mix the hot water and flour until the lumps of flour disappear, and add this to the curry paste.
After about 7 minutes of mixing and frying, add the turmeric, chili powder, and curry powder and mix them in. At this point, you can either use all of the paste or set some aside for later recipes.
Add lamb to the remaining paste and 2 cups of water, and simmer until the meat is tender. Add salt to taste. Serve over boiled rice (preferably basmati). Sprinkle with fresh lemon juice. Serves 8.
- Adapted from Rhoda Tumboli's recipe
1/3 cup dried chickpeas (or 2 1-lb. cans)
1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger
5 cloves garlic
2 small tomatoes, skinned
2 black cardamoms
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/3 cup oil
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon garam masala powder (available at Indian grocery stores and some supermarkets)
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Soak the chickpeas overnight in 5 cups water. Chop 2 of the onions and reserve. In a food processor, puree the other onion with the ginger and garlic. Puree the tomatoes separately. Set aside.
Place the soaked chickpeas (and the soaking water) in a pot, with half of the chopped onion, cardamoms, cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook in an ordinary pot for at least 50 minutes. If using canned chickpeas, drain, wash, and boil chickpeas in 3 cups of water with onion, cardamoms, cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and 1 teaspoon salt. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid.
In a separate cooking pot, heat the oil. Add the reserved chopped onion and saute until brown. Add the pureed onion, ginger, and garlic mixture, and saute for 5 minutes.
Add the turmeric, garam masala, coriander powders, and pepper, stirring thoroughly. After 1 minute, add the pureed tomato and saute for a few minutes.
Add the cooked chickpeas and stir gently. Add the water in which the chickpeas were cooked and cook until tender. Add salt to taste. Serve over boiled rice or with chapatis. Serves 6.
- Adapted from 'The Great Curries of India,' by Camellia Panjabi (Simon & Schuster)