While the Ripley O’Donoghue family is still accumulating the basic necessities that one needs in a home, the spice cupboard is already full. So are our bellies!
One of my first purchases in India was a genuine Indian cookbook. One of my second buys was a little food processor/submersible blender. So much of Indian cooking requires this piece of equipment, or else a good mortar and pestle.
Next on my list is a traditional karahi, or Indian frying pan. I’ve been told the best kind to get is aluminum, but I like the looks of the old cast-iron ones. I plan to hit the market in old Pune, the center of the city, to find the best, most authentic karahi possible.
One mere month in India has been the most exquisite culinary experience already. We’re eating far less meat and way more vegetables. We all feel healthier. But the best part is the food is simply delicious, and I’m making most of it myself.
The discovery of the curry plant in our backyard made me ridiculously happy. Here’s how it happened.
All of the homes in Paradise Society share a gardener. This man shows up in our backyards every now and then tending to plants, flowers, bushes, grass—even the potted plants. Watching him work with simple hand tools, I can tell this man, short of stature and black as night, loves what he does. He sits down in the dirt or on the grass and tends to growing things in the outdoors, carefully weeding and watering.
Shortly after we’d first arrived, he knocked on our living room window and handed me some limes from a tree in our backyard. I was delighted, and thanked him. He made some motions with his hand, which I didn’t understand at first. I thought he meant that I should scrub the windowsill with them! As he spoke in Hindi or Marathi, I’m not sure which, I realized what he was saying was that I should wash the limes first.
I’m washing them and making good use of every one!
It was a week or so later and another knock on the window. I wasn’t home at the time, but Rory, our 16-year-old son, opened the screen door. The gardener handed him a branch with dark green leaves. He made chopping motions with his hands, indicating we should chop up this weed and eat it.
This was relayed to me when I got home. I was dubious. I put the weed outside, on the upstairs terrace. I wasn’t about to eat a plant of unknown origin, let alone feed it to my family.
It wasn’t long after this took place that I bought my Indian cookery book. The recipes kept mentioning fresh curry leaves. I asked my favorite vegetable walla, a surly man just down the lane from our house, if he had some. He nodded toward one particular bin, and I picked up a small bundle of dark green leaves on a delicate stems. I broke the leaves, crushed some in my hand, and inhaled deeply.
Aaaahhh! That’s that wonderful smell that wafts from the kitchen windows of so many of my neighbors. And then I remembered — the weed the gardener had given Rory!
It was shriveled up beyond recognition, out on the upstairs terrace still. But, with the curry from the veggie walla in hand, I ventured out into the back yard. There, in a back corner, was what looked very similar to the purchase in my hand. Could that really be fresh curry, just growing there happily?
Cautious, I asked a next door neighbor’s maid, who I’m friendly with, to come and inspect them. She confirmed it for me—yes, indeed, fresh curry grows in my backyard!
And with this fresh curry I made the dish below:
1 pound new potatoes
1 tsp. turmeric
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 dried red chillies (I used dry chilli flakes)
6-8 fresh curry leaves
2 onions, finely chopped
2 fresh green chillies, finely chopped
2 cups fresh coriander (cilantro), coarsely chopped
½ tsp. each of cumin, mustard, onion, fennel and nigella seeds (I made mine without onion and nigella seeds, since I didn’t have any)
Lemon juice, to taste (I used fresh lime juice from our tree)
Three easy steps:
1. Scrub and clean potatoes. Peel if you like (I did). Cut into small pieces and boil until tender. Drain and set aside.
2. Heat oil in the frying pan (or the karahi of your dreams) and fry the dried red chillies (or flakes) and curry leaves until the chillies are nearly burnt. Add the onions, green chillies, fresh coriander/cilantro, turmeric and spice seeds and cook until onions are soft. (If you don’t have fresh curry leaves, as you likely won’t in Fairbanks, then experiment with small amounts of curry powder and see what happens).
3. Fold in the cooked potatoes, adding a bit of water if needed. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring to ensure all these beautiful spices are properly mixed. At the very end, squeeze the lime juice over everything. Serve to your hungry family or friends immediately!
When I made this recipe, I served it with some fresh steamed cauliflower that I smothered with some cheddar cheese while it was still hot. (An aside: cheddar cheese is not super easy to get here. Processed American cheese seems to rule the grocery store shelves. I have to buy cheddar cheese from specialty “import” stores that cater to Pune’s large ex-pat population).
Bombay potatoes and the cauliflower made a completely filling and satisfying vegetarian meal for all people in our family except our youngest, 8-year-old Rachel, who ended up having a peanut butter sandwich instead. If you don’t have picky eaters, this eye-watering/nasal clearing meal will be a hit.
We’ve also discovered paneer, or Indian cheese. I tried making Paneer Balti with Prawns, also from the new cookbook that, come think of it, is beginning to look quite shop worn:
Paneer Balti with Prawns
12 cooked prawns or jumbo shrimp
6 ounces paneer (you can substitute tofu if you can’t find paneer in Alaska)
2 tsp. tomato puree (or paste, as we know it)
4 tsp. plain or Greek yogurt (in India, they call it “hung” yogurt, meaning it’s been strained as Indian yogurt, or dahi, is very runny)
1 ½ tsp. garam masala
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp. crushed garlic (I always add more garlic in whatever recipe)
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. Amchur powder (mango powder—leave this out if you can’t find in AK)
1 tsp. dried ground coriander
½ cup butter
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 fresh green chillies, chopped
3 tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
2/3 cup light cream
Now just a few more steps:
- Cook and peel shrimp; cube the paneer.
- Put tomato paste, yogurt, garam masala, chilli powder, garlic, salt, mango powder and ground coriander into a bowl. Make a paste; set aside.
- Melt butter and oil in a deep frying pan or Indian karahi. Lower the temperature and fry paneer and prawns together for about 2 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on some paper towel.
- Pour the spice paste into the pan with the leftover oil and butter and cook for one minute.
- Add the paneer and prawns back into the pan or karahi and cook for 7-10 minutes more. Add the fresh chillies and most of the coriander. Pour in the cream. Heat it back up, garnish with leftover coriander, set on the table and watch your teenage boys wolf it down!
This meal was a definite hit. I served it with basmati rice and fresh steamed green beans with almonds.