Friday, February 20, 2009

Curry: An Essay

"This curry was like a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that I'd once heard - especially the last movement, with everything screaming and banging 'Joy.' It stunned, it made one fear great art. My father could say nothing after the meal." ~Anthony Burgess

Curry, it’s a simple word, yet varied and complex in meaning and richly seeded in history, with roots in India but widely eaten throughout Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, curry’s influence can be seen all around the world! The word “curry” is an Anglicized word from the Tamil* word “kari,” meaning ‘sauce’ (Tamil is an ancient Indian language that’s existed for almost 2 millennia!). In its most generic form, ‘curry’ usually refers to any Indian spiced, stewed dish made of meat, fish or vegetables. The spice blends that make up curry are known as ‘masala’, the most commonly known being the bright yellow Indian-inspired curry powder found in the supermarket, containing heavy amounts of turmeric and cumin. Another more commonly known masala is ‘Garam Masala’, a spice blend commonly used in Northern India, consisting of a mix of sweet spices including cinnamon, cardamom and coriander among other things; and ‘Masala Chai’, a blend of sweet spices usually combined with black tea to make Chai tea. The range of spice blends that make up true masala are as diverse and wide ranging as the Asian subcontinent itself, as masala recipes vary from family to family and are often passed down through generations! Pretty neat, huh?

Indian cooking is really regional and there are so many different styles. Northern Indian cuisine uses yogurt, cream, ghee*, and other dairy products in their cooking. The dishes include meat and poultry, are mildly spiced, and accompanied by pilafs and a variety of breads such as paratha*, naan* and chapatti*. Southern Indian cooking includes vegetarian and fish dishes, uses pungent spices and coconut milk and are most commonly served with rice or rice combined with lentils to make pancakes, fritters or breads such as dosas*, uttapams* and vadas*. Southern Indian cuisine also tends to have a soupier consistency compared to the thicker, creamier dishes of the North.

Religion also plays an integral part in the regional food of India, as the country is the birthplace of two of the worlds great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Around 80 percent of the population is Hindu, while Muslims are the largest religious minority. Other religious groups include Sikhs, Christians, Buddhist, Jains, Parsees and Jews. Many Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists are strict vegetarians, in accordance with the ideal that they should avoid harm, violence and suffering. Which, in turn, has led to a rich and abundant array of vegan and vegetarian dishes that play an integral part of Indian culture. The Mughal Empire introduced goat and lamb and brought the influences of Persian and Mediterranean cuisine to the Indian table.

Since ancient times and the very beginnings of commerce, the spice trade has been an important commercial activity and played an integral role in the spread of Indian spices and flavors throughout the Orient and the West. Spices were considered rare and precious products, treasured for the medicinal uses as well as for use in perfumes, dyes and cooking. The spice trade, originally, was made up of a series of interconnected trade routes across the Asian continent, connecting East, South and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, Europe and Africa. But, as marine transportation and navigational tools advanced, starting in the 15th Century, European explorers traveled the world by ocean in search of new trading partners and goods; spices being among one of the most prized trading goods, next to silver and gold!

With the development of maritime transportation and expansion of trade routes, also came the proliferation of religion - further expanding the influences of the Indian kitchen; not just into the cuisines of West brought home by early Christian missionaries, but in the cuisines of South East Asia as Buddhism made its journey southward.

At the crossroads of the East-West sea routes, Thailand and Indonesia were easily influenced by the cuisine of many other countries. And with an abundant supply of fish and seafood, as well as fruits and vegetables, the people took what was best from India, China and the Middle East and infused it with their indigenous ingredients to create a cooking style totally their own. Curry spices were combined with kefir, galangal and lemongrass and beaten to a paste. Ghee and diary products were replaced with coconut oil and coconut milk.

Driven by increased trade routes, Arab traders slowly converted Indonesia from Hindu to Muslim, adding new flavors and aromas to an already rich culinary landscape. Kebabs, a Middle-Eastern dish of marinated meats threaded onto a stick, becoming satay, goat and lamb became their staple meats. Chinese merchants made their own contribution to the South East Asian melting pot bringing with them the wok, and stir-frying, noodles and soybeans. And as the Dutch waged war over the Spice Islands, they too brought flavors from home importing carrots, cauliflower, cabbage and string beans, potatoes and corn, adding to an already diverse and plentiful array of vegetables.

The advent of slavery into Africa further expanded the influences of the Indian kitchen as Dutch traders brought slaves from India and South East Asia to do domestic work as well as work the fields. The slaves brought with them the flavors of their homeland, which quickly infused with the indigenous ingredients of African cuisine and eventually developed into a cuisine all its own.
In the quest for closer and cheaper places to find and grow spices, Europeans brought African slaves to the Caribbean. The warm climate mimicked that of India and became an ideal place to grow spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, cloves and ginger originally imported from Asia. With the abolishment of slavery, Europeans imported indentured workers from India, more cooking styles were introduced and a new cuisine was born, bred of the influences of the Anglo, African and Indian kitchens.

From curry-spiced chocolates to chai crème brulee, today, the far-reaching influences of India can hardly be missed. In the culinary capitals of London, Paris, New York and San Francisco, the world’s hottest chefs are quick to reach to the Indian pantry to add a taste of the exotic to even the most refined dishes. Though we may look at these embellishments as haute, modern and new, the pervasiveness of Indian spices in global cuisine is almost as old as cooking itself.

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I’m really not sure at what point it was in my life that I became completely enthralled by curry. Was it as a child when my mom would make a thick, sweet and spicey yellow chicken curry served with bowls of chopped pineapple, shredded coconut, raisins and nuts to top it with? I’ve never seen curry served like that since, but it is one of my earliest happy food memories. Or was it when I first moved to New York City and my friend, Diane, took me for a gander down Curry Row on East 6th Street in the East Village where one could gorge themselves on curries, na’an and lassi’s at countless Christmas light adorned, tabla playing Indian restaurants for around $10? The going tale at the time was that all of the restaurants were actually serviced by one kitchen… Or was it the aromas of heaven that I smelled while interning at the upscale Indian restaurant, Devi? I’m not sure, but some of the best things in life are happy accidents and however it came about, I can now say that I am a loyal devotee of the Indian kitchen and its influences. I love the aroma of dozens of spices simmering together in a rich sauce; I savor the play of sweet, spicy and sour on my tongue, and the adore the fluffly, warm breads and crunchy papadams and chutneys.

In honor of my devotion to Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food and cooking, I am holding a 3-day curry workshop at Alysson’s of Ashland in Ashland, Oregon! We’ll be exploring curries and how they’ve evolved from the Indian kitchen and spread all around the world.

February 28 – India
o Shrimp Vindaloo
o South Indian Lamb Curry
o Lemon Rice
o Lentil Dal with Fresh Ginger, Green Chiles and Cilantro
o Raita, Cilantro Chutney
o Mango Lassi

March 7 – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand
o Kao Soi – Chiang Mai Style Curry Noodles with Vegetables
o Indonisian Chicken Rendang
o Malaysian Hot and Sour Fish Curry
o Sambal Asam – Malaysian Chile Sauce
o Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango

March 14 – South Africa and the Caribbean
o Cape Malay Fish Biryani
o South African Butter Chicken
o “Doubles” – Trinidad Street Food, Flat Breads filled with Curried Chickpeas and Topped with a variety of Chutneys and Pepper Sauce
o Fresh Mango Chutney
o Tamarind Chutney

Quick Curry Powder:

3 Tablespoons Coriander Seeds
1 1/2 Tablespoon Cumin Seeds
1 Teaspoon Chili Flakes
1 teaspoon Fenugreek
1 Tablepoon Ground Turmeric

In a small sauté pan toast coriander, cumin, fenugreek and chili flakes until aromatic and just beginning to toast – about 4 minutes. Pour contents of pan into a spice grinder and add tumeric. Grind into a fine powder. Store in a tightly seeled jar for up to 6 weeks (it will last longer, but it will begin to lose it’s flavor).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Got milk?

"How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" ~Charles de Gaulle

Firm but smooth, nutty with notes of rich butter fat, a touch of salt and a faint but sharp tinge of acidity – just enough to trigger the salivary glands and make my mouth water. God, and to think you can actually make this stuff in your own kitchen! I feel like Eve biting into the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as I lick a yellow and blue-flecked smear from the tip of my finger. It’s so good, it must be wrong, or illegal, or something. “Help yourself, but the blue needs a little more time”, Jessie says to me as my eyes roll into the back of my head and I slip into a state of food euphoria.

After moving out to Ashland a few months ago and having her dreams dashed of pursuing an internship at Rogue Creamery due to a lack of a dairy science degree, Jess did what any self-respecting, dejected, depressed, food-loving girl would do, dug into a quart of Haagen Daz. She went to the local library and checked out a copy of Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carrol, ordered the cultures, starters, rennets and molds online, milked some goats at a local farm, and made some cheese. A goat blue, goat camembert and cow blue – to be exact. Now, this milking thing may be commonplace for all you country folk, but I’m from New York City and I’ve never milked anything except for, maybe, a hangover. Truth be told, if I were in Jessie’s shoes, I would’ve gone for the Haagen Daz and a chick flick to drown my sorrows – so I’m bowled over by her gusto!

Intrigued by the whole idea of cheese making, I’ve made a few in my day. But only fresh cheeses like queso fresco and fresh ricotta, and with only store bought milk. And though I’ve been curious to delve more into the world of home cheese making, I’ve always been under the false impression that to do anything beyond basic, fresh cheese one had to have access to a farmhouse, refitted with a sterile, stainless steel room full of lots of expensive laboratory equipment, set against the bucolic English country side, and with a cold, musty and ancient cellar dug into a nearby mountain, ala Neil’s Yard, for which to age the cheese. But as we cut through the white, bloomy, soft rind of the camembert, the area closest to the rind oozing and soft, the center chalky white, slightly firm but still creamy, I realize the err of my thinking. Jessie made all of these cheeses using basic, household kitchen equipment and the cheeses have been ripening just fine in a standard home refrigerator in her house, since early December.

From the moment she showed me her little cheese project, I was determined to stick around this neck-of-the-woods just so that I could taste the final result. The goat blue is firm, a pale, gold color, streaked with mold. It looks a lot like Cabrales, but much more mild in flavor. It’s young, that distinctive bluey tang hasn’t fully developed, but it’s well on its way. The cow blue is creamy, almost the texture of a brie, salty and mild, with pockets of blue-grey mold. But, the goat camembert is really the piece de resistance. What I’m most struck by though is not just the differences in the flavors of the different cheeses, but the differences between the store bought milk and the milk from the goats that Jessie milked herself. The cheese made from the fresh goats milk is so much more nuanced than the cheese made from the store bought milk. Though it’s mild, the flavors are complex, with layers of butterfat, grass and hay. The rich, velvety smooth and creamy texture round out it’s tart acidity. I’m totally, thoroughly impressed and amazed.

Jessie’s is on the hunt for some cows to milk and, in the meantime, has whipped up a batch of cow camembert (sadly, without me!), which won’t be ready for another month or so. So, I suppose this means I need to go apartment hunting so that I can make sure the cheese is ripening properly…

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