Curry Night

The difference between cooking from a recipe book and working from your head is like being a busker who makes beautiful sounds in the street without sheet music and then puts on his tuxedo and plays precise, fast Mozart in a philharmonic orchestra. The skills are the same but the attitude’s different and you’re playing someone else’s beat.

There aren’t many days when I use a recipe to the letter, but when learning a style of cookery, it is essential to stick to the book. Curry isn’t curry unless you follow the rules. If you deviate before you are ready, all you have is a spicy stew.

Now most people will know that ‘curry’ was a watery stew invented for the sake of the delicate British palate, but the modern use of the word covers a vast array of dishes, from white chicken korma to Goa fish curry; egg curries, dried fruit curries and more besides. Far more than what you can find in a high street British Indian restaurant and way beyond the watery stew.

The book in question tonight is Carmellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India. It’s an unprepossessing book, but its pages dispense the magic of precise curry making with lovely pictures and if you are careful not to miss out any of the ingredients, it is possible to perfectly replicate the delicious concoctions inside.

A fast rundown of the recipe of the night: Panjabi’s Malabar Prawn Curry won’t do it justice, but it should give you the flavour of what you can expect if you part with £6 to obtain it for yourself from Amazon.

Malabar Prawn Curry, Magpie stylee

The smart curry learner gets the ingredients ready in groups, bowled-up like a TV cookery show. When you’re ready to get the show on the road, it will only take around 20 minutes to make.

100g creamed coconut melted into milk with 400ml water
1 tablespoon tamarind extract diluted in 100ml water

1/4 tsp mustard seeds
10 dried curry leaves

half a biggish onion, sliced thinly end to end

3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 heaped teaspoon grated ginger
4 green chillies, cut lengthways in half.

1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

200g (it will take 300g) prawns *preferably raw but needs must when the Devil drives.*

3 tablespoons of oil (yes, THREE).

Heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the curry leaves to allow the oil to become infused with the flavour. Add the sliced onion and fry for 5-7 minutes. Keep stirring, the onion wants to be slickly yellow and flavoursome; not edged with dark brown.

Add the ginger, chillies and garlic. Fry for 2 minutes and then add the dried chilli and the powders. Add 2 tablespoons of water and stir to prevent sticking. DON’T BURN THE SPICES.

Add the chopped tomatoes, 100ml water and tamarind extract. Simmer for 5-10 minutes while you put on the rice. 

Pour in the coconut milk, salt the curry, stir and let it rise to a simmer. Taste. Too hot? Tough. There are ways to reduce the heat, but this isn’t a curry to kill. The tamarind will have given it a warm, sour flavour; salt is not needed in as great a quantity as you might expect.

Add the prawns, bring to a brief simmer again and serve with lashings of raita. (Diced cucumber and onion in cooling plain yoghurt).

Strangely, it doesn’t even begin to resemble the glorious sunset red of the photograph in the book, but the taste is unusual and heady and despite the accidental over application of chilli flakes, is not as hot in the dish as it is in the pan.

Cooking on Books

The Flavour Thesaurus by Nikki Segnit is mouthfeel of the moment. It is the taste and texture that comes when you are forced to imagine the food, rather than seeing it in a 2D colour picture.

Its 16 sections each describe a category of flavour; Earthy, Roasted, Mustardy, Suphurous and Brine & Salt to name a few, within which are contained pairs of basic flavours. When you start to read, just dipping in, you think you are reading a clearly structured book, but the careful order fools you. You find yourself embroiled in a pattern of flavour pairs which then catapults you to another section of the book. For example:

Cinnamon & Chocolate…
Cinnamon & Clove…
Cinnamon & Coconut: See Coconut & Cinnamon, page 287

Coconut & Cinnamon…
Coconut & Coriander Leaf: See Coriander Leaf & Coconut, page 194

Coriander Leaf & Cumin…
Coriander Leaf & Garlic…
Coriander Leaf & Goats Cheese: See Goats Cheese & Coriander, page 56.

This loses the reader in a pleasurably warm sea of flavour defintions across sections, tossed from Spicy to Creamy Fruity to Green & Grassy or any other groupings.

The explanations of the flavour pairs are presented as anecdotes, recipes, cultural background and quotes and tales from older times. The author’s presence comes across knowledgably but with a chatty tone and a decent sense of humour which saves her from sounding like a teacher and is more reminiscent of your favourite college lecturer.

The book gives its reader the tools to leave recipes behind and work more easily with intuition. By understanding what combinations work, we can be released from the hells that are star anise flavoured cornish pasty pastry and bananas and beef stew.

Image courtesy of The Flavour Thesaurus