04 March 2009

Food Blog Fourth Edition: Curry Diary

Opening the door –
‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’
Snow morning.

Today the blog is interspersed with Japanese verse called Senryū, developed in the latter half of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), a style that “deals in distortions and failings” as opposed to the original mysticism of the tanka and haiku. Thus, mysticism aside, it is time to attend to the stomach. Patty Neil, famed curry tiffin creator of Selkirk and authoress of a fantastic book on Asian cuisine, is once more my inspiration, as she has been in the past. Apologies for complete lack of authenticity, it is possible I will go to hell, but as the senryū goes:

Judging from the pictures,
Hell looks the more
Interesting place.

And I always like to see my cup as half full; the triumph of good will over authenticity:

‘She may only have one eye
But it’s a pretty one,’
Said the go-between
.

My father was born in Pune, India, where my grandparents, Martin and Mary Giles, lived a basic lifestyle in the fifties. Post-war, post-England, it seemed a wild place, but a tonic after the hell of “our” war as they call it, and all that unthinkable loss; this as opposed to the “first” war – where Mary’s mother, my great-grandmother, lost her first fiancé. She didn’t marry again until much later, agreeing on her marriage by letter and giving birth to Mary age forty. Martin (a engineer in the Navy during the war) lost two brothers, two amongst millions. In India he was in charge of a railway junction, and they lived in a small house hidden away in a valley that was sodden in the monsoon season, then sumptuous, then barren in the dry. There was a wallah for everything, and the hierarchy of servants was typically Indian in its idiosyncratic breadth and precision. Father tells how he was suckled by an Indian wet nurse; “bloody rubbish”, was Mary’s reply. Mary tells of one day at bath time how a snake oozed up through the plughole, a wallah dispatched to kill it as she shrieked dripping from the bath-tub. Martin often still calls Mary the Memsahib, and their house in Devon is full of memorabilia that has been imprinted on my visual memory from a very early age, coupled with bits and pieces from Mary’s childhood in Thailand, where my great-grandfather lived and worked in the twenties and thirties. The great golden Buddha on an oriental chest in the lounge watches over us all with a fat, benign grin on his face.
Martin and Mary went on to own various hotels in England, most famously the George in Hatherleigh, where Mary was chief cook, counting Ted Hughes as a regular amongst others (see Crow blog). Martin manned the bar along with five thirsty children, so never be surprised when the wine flows at a Giles family gathering (and indeed on any other occasion), as it is something we have been brought up with. Mary and her lobster thermidor and mussel chowder are legendary, as are her wild cries from the kitchen as she wrought her arcane magic and put out a chip-pan fire or two.

It is not surprising, therefore, that my life has always known good food, and in particular has contained some very exciting curries. I always rather enjoyed telling my Spanish friends when I lived in Madrid that Indian food was the most popular cuisine in Britain. Not only does it hold a certain pleasing post-Colonial irony for me, but it also knocks the tall tale on the head that British cuisine is a dry and tasteless food desert. Of course even native British cuisine does not need to be, but Indian food, or comida hindú as the Spanish call it, is internationally renowned enough, and exotic enough, for Spanish friends to stop any harping on about how terrible British food is. (Their spice and heat threshold is low, however, and only the mildest korma suits the average Spanish palate.) Fish and chips have a lot to answer for, but trying to tell a Spaniard that even that can be matchless is a fruitless affair.

After a week of feeling a pressing coup de vieux (I had plunged into Ted Hughes’ Crow feet first, with exhausting, questionable but ultimately relieving results), it was time to stop the porridge and salad diet, equally ignore my longing for pie after pie after pasty after pie, and get cooking.
Last night was curry night chez blogger. I was cooking for me, and me alone, with plenty of good radio on 4 (as long as I didn’t need to hear about Fred the Shred and his £650,000 a year – galling ), Golden Virginia for crafty fags, a look-out on the rain from my study-room window, and the lone white rabbit who lives below my window hopping about, a ghost amongst his sandy brethren. Very satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, I love to have guests, but there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that the bottle of red wine has only your name on it, and those steaming pots of curry too. As Greta Garbo would have said in all her glamour and celluloid wisdom, I vanted to be alone.

As it’s such a sweat,
He cooks a whole gallon –
The bachelor.

Possibly the best curry I have had this century is my father’s boiled egg curry, so hot it makes your ears bleed. None of that brightly coloured gloop served in some British Indian restaurants, but a freshly-turned out curry served with a lightness of touch. Rosie Jenkins, friend and oboeist for the Northern Sinfonia (and first oboe for the Mumbai Symphony Orchestra – so she also knows curry) and her sister Katy Karpfinger, world traveller and fellow brass player, will testify to this. One night in my Yorkshire home village, the incomparable Gilling West, Katy, Rosie and I downed red wine as the ridiculously good coriander-covered dragon-dish did its good work. My father has India in his blood.
Anyway, last night’s curry: Blog-chicken. I can’t really give it a proper name as I didn’t follow a recipe, but I am pretty sure Madhur Jaffrey would not have turned her nose up at it:

Fry up the chicken breast pieces in garlic, onion and olive oil. When it starts to look cooked put in fresh ginger, cumin, garam masala, turmeric, crushed coriander and fennel seeds (and fresh chilli depending how hot you would like it – I put it in plenty but not enough to get the eyes bleeding – sorry Dad ) and get it all nicely browned. Alternatively you should marinate it in the same and add more spices at the point of cooking. Chuck in some veg. I put courgettes, carrots and potato. I think some peppers would have been nice, and some aubergine*. I toyed with the idea of okra but it didn’t compute. Add chicken stock (in my perfect world I’d always have a pot full of bones slowly boiling on my Aga in the farmhouse, a bestselling book on the lists at all times and a bay tree outside the back door. Otherwise, cheat), a tin of tomatoes, tomato puree and a bay leaf or two (cheated there too, but an enormous bag only costs 69p at the Asian supermarket). Season. Cook it away on a low heat for an hour and a half or so, taking the lid off if there is too much liquid. Turn it off and leave it for a day; put it in the fridge when cooled if you are feeling energetic (note: I am channelling Nigella here, but there is something to be said for her sluttish and extremely enjoyable sex-before-freezing philosophy that agrees with this dish and many more). I always leave any stew-type dish or soup for a day, it seems to collect more flavour.
The night of the curry feast, make the daal. Again, this is not the classic recipe but it works well for me. Red lentils, crushed garlic, chicken stock (I used a cube), cumin, coriander seeds, fennel (you may have noticed I got a job lot of fennel seeds at the Asian supermarket) and a little salt. Bring to the boil. Leave to simmer until a smooth-ish paste. Chuck in tons of chopped fresh coriander and squeeze in some fresh lime juice. Check seasoning. Also, after reheating the chicken curry mix in lots of chopped fresh coriander – key ingredient – and the aubergines if you read the footnote.

The rice turned out all right. One cup of basmati, two cups water, bring to the boil and turn right down or off (presuming you’re electric, if gas, down, naturally). Leave to sit for as long as possible, at least 15 minutes. Some cover it in a tea towel while it sits. The Artist heats up an enormous cauldron of water, throws in the rice and drains it, and I have to say her rice is generally faultless. To recap: everyone has their rice fix, but this way pretty much always works for me. The easiest way I have ever cooked rice, however, was when I worked in a restaurant – in a rice cooker. Perfectly separating rice with a smile on its face and no depressive soggy streak.
Serve the curry on a big platter with lime pickle (my latest find is Ahmed Foods Lime Pickle in Oil: Product of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – always a good cause to support unless you’re a Sri Lankan cricketer - with enormous and pretty hot chunks of lime, and the ingredients in Arabic – authentic – I think so! – and all for the price of £1.29), cold natural yoghurt, more chopped fresh coriander and a couple of hard boiled eggs if you want them. Somehow, probably due to my upbringing, that seems incredibly authentic, but is pure Yorkshire stinginess. You may also wish to lace it with silver or gold. An kitsch old cookery book of Mughal cuisine which the Artist thought for years was a plush book with crap photos of food WITH SILVER FOIL UPON IT (ie some weird misplaced Mughal love of Western modernity, or a very lazy chef who made it impossible to change said photo before deadline pre-Photoshop) is actually posh Indian food made even posher by covering it with slivers of silver and gold THAT STILL LOOK LIKE LEFTOVER KITCHEN FOIL. But precious metals they are, possibly even served by a naked man-servant as you lounge in a throne on an elephant’s back. We can but dream.
REPLETE? If not, finish the wine. I had a Californian Zinfandel which was less than average but I prefer to wash back curry with red wine, rather than cold and soulless beer. If you’re still not full, you are a glutton and I salute you. Cut a fresh, ripe mango in half, squeeze a lime over it and add a touch of sugar if you have a particularly sweet tooth. I then picked up a book the Artist had ordered me to read: Geoffrey Household’s ‘Rogue Male’, a book I immediately fell headlong into, dreaming of dirty secrets and an inhumanly-damaged human with a desire to hunt the ultimate big game. Chief objectives leading to escape are the following:

“Item: I had to shave off a four days’ beard. That was far from being the mere prejudice of an Englishman against appearing in public with his bristles. If a man is clean shaved and has a well-fitting collar and tie – even reasonably dirty – he can get away with a multitude of suspicious circumstances.

Item: Gloves. The ends of my fingers had to be shown while paying money and taking goods, and they were not human.”

Item: An Eyeshade. My left eye was in a condition that could not be verified without a mirror. The eyelid had stuck to a mess of what I hoped was only blood.”

Glad I gorged first.

* Aubergine tip: chop them up into thick slices, salt them, brush them with olive oil and put a blob of Tabasco on each one. Then grill them (both sides) until golden and joyful. Alternatively put them in baking tray, salt them, squeeze on the juice of a little lemon or a big lime and plenty of olive oil and leave them until crispy and golden (again, turn them – there is devil-may-care sluttish and there is just plain laziness). Then add them to the curry the next day at the point of heating up. See how your aubergines have become small, dark, firm-but-not-dry discs of sumptuous, voluptuous desire. Thank-you Delia.

1 comment:

  1. I sincerely hope you toasted and crushed those spices before adding them to the curry. Sluttishness indeed if you didn't!
    Makes me hungry though, and I've just had a huge lamb sandwich...
    Hasta mañana guapo!

    ReplyDelete