Saturday, July 17, 2010

Layering for warmth: chicken curry with black spices and cashews

Curries are like ogres. Which is to say they are like onions. Which is to say: curries have layers.

To begin with, the word ‘curry’ seems, in the West, to stand as a description for nearly all food of ‘the other’. For the western world, curry has become an almost universal appellation for any vaguely spicy ‘Asian’ stew, where ‘Asian’ encompasses everything from North African to Middle Eastern to Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mongolian, and, of course, Indian. The word is stretched in a way that seems to flatten the cuisine of these diverse countries into single homogenous layer, an effort reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of row upon row of ‘curry sauce’ in supermarket aisles.

But curry is like a Mandelbrot image: not matter how ordinary and singular the ready-to-serve army of jars might render it, it is infinitely repeated and replicated, multiplying and becoming more specific to each country, then region, town, then household. And unlike the Mandelbrot, each fractal repetition is subtly and uniquely different. Curry is like an army of ogres.

The most likely point of origin for the term ‘curry’ is in India, but between the Tamil words kaikaari (spiced vegetables) and karee kolambu (meat with spiced sauce) and the Punjabi word khadi, there no clear ground zero from which the word sprung**. And in India, where curry has now been readopted as a general description, no two curries are ever the same.

And so, from the general to the particular. In ironic contrast to the linguistic obscuring of the layered complexity of the social and cultural uniqueness of each and every example of cuisine termed ‘curry’, the only commonality (from what I can tell!) is that Indian curry is made by a process of layering. Indian curry is a complex and quite esoteric process of cooking, adding, frying off and recombining different whole, ground, dried and fresh spices in endlessly different quantities and arrangements in an almost mythological balancing act. Each layer releases flavours, heat, sweetness into oil and then develops over time, settling in and combining with the next layer. Not all curry is spicy-hot, but all curry is spiced, even if delicately, and the result of layering the spices in the cooking process is that when you eat a really good curry, each layer of spice sneaks up on a different part of your palate, rolling over and around your taste buds. It enters your nose while you cook it, and makes you lips tingle and your tongue dance.

And that’s before you even think about meat or vegetables or legumes. That’s just the sauce. Of one curry.

* Shrek, 2001, Pixar Animation
** Camellia Panjabi 50 Great Curries of India 1995 London Kyle Cathie Ltd

Chicken curry with black spices and cashews*

Makes enough for 8 servings

100 gm desiccated coconut, mixed with 2 tbsp coconut cream + 2 tbsp water
1 bulb of garlic, cloves peeled
1 inch ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 ½ tbsp coriander seeds
1 ½ tsp cumin seeds
6 whole dried red chillies or 2 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional - without chilli, this is a very sweet rich curry, but I think it lacks bite).
10 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
250 gm cashew nuts
1 large onion, roughly chopped
¾ cup water
5 tbsp oil
750 gm chicken thigh pieces
500 gm chicken drummets (separated wing pieces, bone in) or other chicken on the bone

In a large fry pan or wok, toast the garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, chilli, cloves and cinnamon over a low heat for about 5 minutes. Then add the coconut mixture, onions and 25 gm of cashew nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the garlic and onion is soft.

Remove mixture to a blender, allow to cool. Add ¾ cup water and blend until smooth.

In a mortar and pestle, crush 50 gms cashew nuts with a little water until a smooth paste forms.

Heat oil in the wok and add the blended spice and coconut mixture. Cook over a low heat for about ten minutes. Add half the cashew nut paste and salt to taste, cook for a further couples of minutes.

Increase the heat and add the chicken pieces, fry for about five minutes. then add 1 litre water, lower heat and cover and cook for half an hour.

Add the remaining cashew paste and remaining whole cashews, cook on high heat until the curry sauce is thick and dark. Serve immediately with rice, or refridgerate overnight and reheat the next day, which always tastes amazing.

* from Camellia Panjabi 50 Great Curries of India 1995 London Kyle Cathie Ltd. Ms Panjabi in turn credits Mrs Shirodkar of Bombay with the recipe.

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