There is no such thing as curry. India is not the land of curry. Curry is not the national dish of India. You cannot buy a jar of curry powder. There is no curry here.
This is only half true. There is curry, but not what a westerner would expect. If you order a curry dish in a restaurant, you will not get the yellow stew you think about. “Curry” is a generic term for “stew”, or something that has been cooked for a while in a fragrant sauce that you soup up with rice or your choice of bread. The only places where I have seen the yellow curry served is in Thai restaurants, usually along with chicken satay.
There is another curry, the curry leaf. Curry leaves have the shape of bay leaves but are much smaller, maybe 1.5 inches long. Like bay leaves, it is preferable to cook them, or precisely to fry them. I didn’t like them much at first, they almost have a bitter taste, but now I ask Sandra, our cook, to put them in almost anything.
Indian food is not especially pretty to look at. Most of the time, it looks like a heap of mush, as in a French ratatouille, or the above mentioned stew. Food photography of Indian cuisine focuses on the accessories: the pretty exotic dish, the patterned tablecloth… and less on what’s in the plate. If you go by sight only, it’s not appetising. But the magic starts when you smell it. Good Indian food has layers of tastes and smells, and degrees of spices. You need to first smell the dish. When we first moved here, I sniffed my plate in a restaurant, the waiter laughed and told me I was becoming Indian! And once you taste it, the flavors should develop and evolve inside your mouth. It should taste like a rainbow, where you taste all the colors distinctively, yet harmoniously. This artistry is accomplished by dosing the spices carefully, and it seems that the order in which you add the spices also matters. Indian food is served twicely hot. First, it is temperature hot. They do not like their food lukewarm. It has to burn your fingers (you eat mostly with your fingers) and mouth. Also, reheating Indian food is simply yuck, as the flavors have then combined into one. Second, it is spice hot. And once again, different spices trigger different sensory areas of your mouth. We have learned that some tickle the tip of your tongue, others the entire tongue, and watch out for heat in your throat! The worse thing in this case is to drink water, which increases the sensation of heat. It is recommended to have a spoonful of yogurt or a sip of milk, or better, raita (yogurt with grated carrots, cucumbers and mild spices). I am learning!
You need curry leaves to make sambhar, a South Indian lentil and vegetable soup that E. and I both love, always served as an accompaniment mainly at breakfast. Sambhar is not a curry. Last Monday, I followed Sandra with my cell phone, pen and paper, and recorded her making some. She says I am like no other “Madam” she’s worked for. Instead of sending her for a cooking class at the nearby Italian restaurant (like another expat sent her to), I am asking her to teach me. Role reversals. She doesn’t know what to make of it. To us, her job is less to feed us, and more to teach me so I can attempt to replicate authentic Indian cooking once we go back home.
And for posterity, here’s her recipe:
Cut 3 small tomatoes (about the size of an American big egg), one small (American size) onion into chunks. Put into pressure cooker. Cover well with water.
Add ½ cup toor dal or masoor dal (the latter being “more tasty” she says). Dal is a generic term for dozens of different “lentils”.
Pressure cook for 3 whistles and take off the heat. Keep the lid closed.
Cut 3 brinjals (small eggplants) into chunks and put in a bowl with water. Don’t skip this step as soaking in water will cut the bitterness. Rinse the brinjal. You can vary the vegetables according to taste. I like to add carrots so I get a little texture in the mix.
Take some water out of the pressure cooker and add to the brinjal bowl.
Mash the dal, tomatoes and onion inside the pressure cooker. Add to the brinjal bowl.
Rinse the pressure cooker.
Heat one tbsp of oil. Add one pinch of mustard seeds and about 10 curry leaves. Fry for one minute.
Add one small onion cut into smaller chunks and cook on high until it turns brown.
Add some of the brinjal + dal mixture and a bit of clean water. Sprinkle one tbsp sambhar powder and stir. I think she forgot to add garam masala. Add the rest of the brinjal/dal mixture. Add a handful of chopped coriander leaves.
Close the pressure cooker. Cook for one whistle.
You will have made enough to feed an entire village. As no one cooks for two only in India.