Sometimes, that’s all it takes… a sentence, an idea… and you’re launched.
The spark that lights the journey can come from anywhere…. this time, it came from the clutter of a Sunday newspaper.
Tucked away in his ‘Food Monthly’ column, Nigel Slater mused that every single day he’s spent around food has taught him something new.
I’ve been following Slater since he started his Observer column back in the 90s (and faithfully pasted dozens of his recipes into family food diaries). After Vivek Singh, he matters more to me than any food writer alive.
As I ponder his claim – my instinct is that he’s right. That cooking can teach anyone… about almost anything.
Which begs the question: what has a decade of obsessive curry cooking taught ME?
With a simple observation, Slater has lit my mental touch paper.
Wisely, perhaps, Slater didn’t share his list of insights. But as soon as I’d read his piece, I knew the thought would itch in my head until I had some kind an answer.
I start by looking at the books scattered around our home. It’s a bit of a shock.
The people in the house before us filled every nook and cranny with bookshelves (which we filled with books). Like the horizontal seams in a slab of rock, the lines of books are a geological record of what we’ve read as a family over the decades.
But here’s the shock. Looking at the books I still have from university (four years when the only thing I was asked to do was read) I realise there’s less stuff there than in my curry bookcase.
This is, surely, bonkers. I kept every book that mattered to me as a student – and this entire chunk of life has given me less written matter than a foodie hobby.
So… what has a decade of cooking curry actually taught me?
In most of the 90 or so curry cookbooks I own, there’s a glossary of Indian spices, dals, fruits and vegetables – sometimes running to hundreds of items. With the exception of a couple of perishables I’ve never seen for sale in the UK (tamarind flowers, tamarind leaves), I’ve cooked with most of them.
There are still lovely surprises. Last year, invited by Head Chef Rakesh Ravindran Nair to tour the Cinnamon Club kitchens, I went home with a pocketful of the bonfire-scented marathi moggu – a spice I’d never even heard of. This year, shopping for a tuna curry in Bree Hutchins’ sensational Hidden Kitchens of Sri Lanka, I found the pandanus leaf I needed for the recipe – waiting for me in my local Asian Foodstore. I’d been looking for fresh pandanus for a decade – and found it when I had the recipe book in my hand.
But this, I suspect, is not the kind of stuff that Slater is talking about. Cooking with an exotic new spice is fun – but there’s a difference between a new taste sensation and a new insight.
Slater says he’s learnt something from every day of his 30 years in the kitchen.
Can I manage just five insights from a decade of cooking curries?
Tentatively – for #CurryInsightNo1 – I offer a dawning appreciation of the vastness of the curryverse.
Each time I cook a new curry, I log it in a scrapbook (alphabetically, under the main ingredient, and naming the cookbook it’s from) so I can find it again. I think there’s about 300 recipes so far.
Is that a lot?
Let’s start at the obvious place: Google. The search engine smugly tells me there are over a million returns for ‘Indian recipe book’; 22 million for ‘Indian recipe’; and 180 million for ‘curry’.
These are big numbers, but we’re still just scratching the surface.
As the cuisine of a country with a population of over one billion – and where individual recipes are handed down across the generations – each curry is reinterpreted by millions of different families.
At this point, the numbers get scary, so I hand over Laxmi Parida and her excellent Purba: Feasts from the East. As a food writer, Parida dedicates an entire book to capturing the cooking of just one state: Orissa. And as a maths graduate and computer science PhD – she can calculate where her 100 Orissan recipes sit in the infinity of the curryverse. On the first page of her book, Parida lays out a formula multiplying the total number of curry techniques (T) by the total number of ingredients (I) to give what she believes to be the total possible number of curry recipes (R).
She calculates that R = 62 trillion.
So my first curry insight is humility: a sense of my own total insignificance before the infinity of curryverse (and the impossibility of understanding the smallest fraction of it).
I find this thought strangely comforting. Even if I cooked each of the thousand recipes in Pushpesh Pant’s masterwork, India, I’d be lifting a single grain of sand on the shoreline of Indian food.
I’m a decade in… on a journey measured in light years. However much I learn about curry, I’ll still know nothing.
For #CurryInsightNo2, we move from space to time.
As I cook, I’m beginning to understand that the roots of Indian cooking are as old as almost anything in the whole of Western civilization.
The first written reference to dahi vada (the deep-fried lentil dish you can buy pre-prepared in any Asian grocery store) occurs in Sutra literature in 500 BC. And other staples you find in Indian restaurants the world over – dosa and naan – were first written about using precisely those names in 600 AD and 1300 AD respectively.
Britain is good at ancient buildings and monuments – but is there a single thing in contemporary British cooking that was being written about in 500 BC?
As KT Achaya lucidly explains in his Illustrated Foods of India and Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, almost everything on your curry platter has a history going back centuries or millennia. Eat a naan, and you’re breaking bread with the foodie geniuses who were the Mughals – and inventors of the tandoor.
So, alongside my sense of insignificance before the infinity of curry recipes, I’d add a sense of awe before Indian food’s two millennia of history. Curry is splendidly, reverentially ancient.
More than any other cuisine I know, Indian food turns your kitchen into a time machine.
If you’re still reading (which makes you either a member of my immediate family, or fellow curry nutter), we arrive at #CurryInsightNo3 – and plunge from the macro to the micro.
Google the ‘Protestants of Pontefract’ (I’ll explain why) and you find 78,000 returns. Scan the links, and there’s tonnes of stuff about local Protestant publications and buildings – but not one that celebrates uniquely Protestant recipes, born Pontefract. The same would be true for the ‘Evangelists of Evesham’, ‘Buddhists of Brixham’… I could go on.
The fact is that faith groups in the UK simply don’t create a cuisine that’s unique to where they are.
Explore the world of Indian cookbooks, and you’ll find that’s exactly what faith groups in that country do – to a giddying levels of detail.
According to the 2011 census, there are just 4.4 million Jains in India – making it one of the country’s smallest religions. With a total population of 110k, the town of Palanpur in Gujurat has a community of Jains that probably numbers in the hundreds. But this hasn’t stopped them celebrating the cuisine of their faith and micro-locale in the breath-taking Dadimano Varso… arguably the most perfect cookbook I’ve ever held in my hands. Hundreds of recipes – all unique to the tiny Jain community of Palanpur.
If it excites you to discover how faith and micro-location can come together to create unique cuisines, then Indian cooking offers you a very big canvas. From Ummi Abdulla’s outstanding Malabar Muslim Cookery to Viji Varadarajaran’s Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine; from Malati Srinivasan’s Udupi Kitchen (Madhwa Brahmins of coastal Karnataka) to Sonya Atal Sapru’s Zaika (Kashmiri Pandit cuisine) – you can journey via a single book into the beliefs, culture, customs and food of these communities. Lathika George’s Kerala Kitchen (Syrian Christian cuisine) should also be on your list.
Faith and food in India are two inseparable sides of the same coin.
In Britain, they’re separate (and non-convertible) currencies.
And with the greatest respect to the Protestants of Pontefract, we Brits are the losers.
Food can be anything you want it to be – and one of the insights from Indian cuisine is that weaving food, faith, culture and locale into one collage makes every ingredient more appetising.
If you’re still reading at #CurryInsightNo4, we should probably meet for a drink.
Heading even deeper into the ‘micro’, I want to celebrate the uniquely Indian genius for taking two or more seemingly incompatible ingredients – and marrying them in foodie harmony.
I’m not talking here (although I could) about the miracle of blending spices. I’m more interested in the way that Indian cooks can take main ingredients which seem to shout ‘don’t’ at each other… and make them whisper: ‘I do’.
For days before I cooked it, I told friends that Vivek Singh’s recipe for Roast Pork Chops with Date and Chilli Sauce had 36 ingredients. What really blew my mind was that it called for a spice rub marrying pork with lavender. Six years later, I still look with awe at that page in Vivek Singh’s Curry Classic and Contemporary – a signed copy, and the recipe book that’s given me more pleasure than any other. (Btw: pork and lavender rock.)
Today, when I read a new curry cookbook, I’m hungrily searching for off-beat combinations. Christine Mansfield’s joyous Tasting India dared me to cook her Dry Lamb Curry – combining a staggering 300g of dried pomegranate seeds… 100g of Kashmiri chillies… and a live, smoking piece of charcoal. It’s one of the most theatrical, charismatic dishes I’ve ever cooked, and I urge you to try it.
And so it goes. The legendary Julie Sahni tells you in her Classic Indian Vegetarian Cooking how to bring unripe peaches and chickpeas together into a mouth-watering dal. Venturing into the Indian knack for transforming a by-product into the main event, Sindu Dubhashi’s Karwar Cuisine teaches you the art of making watermelon rind pancakes; Renuka Devi Choudhurani’s Pumpkin Flower Fritters shows you how to repurpose potato skins and ridge gourd skins into a sumptuous dish.
There are endless examples of the Indian passion for making different – even unlikely – combinations work together.
This goes beyond a natural curiosity for flavours… it’s a passion for foodie affinity that treats ingredients like therapy patients – patiently exploring every intricacy that’ll bring the two happily together.
And maybe, that’s part of the same genius for assimilation that helps nurture the world’s largest democracy, and encourages the Indian Constitution to celebrate 22 languages in one country. The same spirit that brings together a wealth of faiths in one place: Hinduism; Islam; Christianity; Sikhism; Buddhism; Jainism; Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
Maybe India is just better at mixing it up than we are.
If you’re one of the 1% of readers still going at #CurryInsightNo5, then I ought to cook you one. Seriously, ping me, and we’ll plan a time and a menu.
This journey started with Nigel Slater – and I think it should end back with people. It’s family and friends who shape us, and what we cook and eat.
Here, I’d offer two thoughts about the interplay between curry and people:
first, I owe a debt to Husna Rahaman and her spell-binding Spice Sorcery for the insight that the final, magical ingredient of any curry is the hand that cooks it. Quoting the Kutchi Memon saying: haath ka mazaa (‘the special flavour unique to her hand’) Rahaman reveals that personality is the unique ingredient you bring to everything you cook. (And going back to Parida’s formula, this means we need to multiply 62 trillion curry recipes by over 1 billion curry cooks!)
last but not least, I want to put it out there that all the people I’ve met on my #curryjourney just happen to be lovely human beings. From the mother and daughter who taught me how to cook Indian rice (Brixton Tesco, 1995) to the delightful Prudential colleague based in Mumbai who sent me rare books and spices; from the staff at Mother India who served me the aloo saag dosa that rocked my world, to the inspirational Asma Khan who proved to me with her cooking that perfect is a thing; from my friends Kamil and Monir at Salisbury’s Asian foodstore who keep me stocked from week to week, to Vivek Singh, Rakesh Ravindran Nair, Laurent Chaniac and all the team at the Cinnamon Club who show me how it should be done.
Of course, I can’t prove that wanting to do amazing things with food makes you a wonderful human being – but that’s been my experience throughout a decade of meeting people through Indian cuisine.
And why I christened this blog… Good Korma.
So Nigel – back at you.
I’ve answered the question you set me – and the itching in my head is easing.
These are my 5 #CurryInsights.
Thank you for the nudge. But no more big thoughts for the moment, please.