In Search of the Perfect Curry: Chef Rick Stein

Whenever I hear the word ‘curry’, I’m filled with a longing for spicy hot food with the fragrance of cumin, cloves and cinnamon. I see deep-red colors from lots of Kashmiri chillies tinged with a suggestion of yellow from turmeric. I think of the tandoor oven, and slightly scorched naan shining with ghee and garlic; of a bowl of dark dal to assuage the heat of the curry, a green chutney of coriander and mint, and a plate with a few tomatoes, cucumbers and sliced onions tinged with pink, all sprinkled with salt and fresh lime juice. At home I have a little sign I put on the front door of my cottage in Padstow which says, Gone Swimming. Maybe I’ll get one which says, Gone for a Curry. The sense of leaving home for something completely satisfying is the same.

The sign would have been there for quite a time while I went for a curry or two in India to make the TV series that accompanies this book. About three months in total, give or take a couple of trips to Australia in between…

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This is what the entire spread looks like. For those interested, this is an A3 Moleskine watercolor album.

WHAT IS A CURRY?

I wanted to find the perfect curry. I did some research on the subject before I left and began to think that my quest might be fruitless as the Indian don’t really understand what we mean by ‘curry’; that it’s a word to describe the British Raj’s rather second-rate interpretation of Indian cuisine. I was also told that the sort of Anglo-Indian cooking that was part of my upbringing – dishes like kedgeree, mulligatawny soup and beef curry with sultanas and desiccated coconut – were anathema to the Indians.

But when I got to India, I realized that curry was just as much part of their vernacular as ours. It’s more specific to them, but they knew perfectly well what we meant. To them, it means a dish with lots of what they call ‘gravy’, and what we would call a sauce, made with a masala- a combination of ground spices and vegetables, such as onion, garlic and ginger with turmeric, chilli and, more often than not, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorns and nutmeg, with liquid in the form of water, tomatoes, ghee or yogurt, and, in the south, coconut milk.

They well understood our use of the word, too, as little more than a generic name for the food of the Indian subcontinent. They had little to say about Anglo-Indian cuisine, because these days it doesn’t exist, except in pockets like the old colonial Madras Club in Chennai. But if they do remember those old dishes, it’s with nostalgia for places like the station restaurants in the 1950s and the 1960s, part of a railway system created by the British. It would certainly not be with any disdain about how awful it was, apart, that is, from curry powder, which was described to me as ‘absolutely horrendous’, but that would have been a peculiarity of Indian food in England.

Curry, therefore, is a word that, to me, very broadly describes all of the cooking of the subcontinent.

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TIBETAN STEAMED DUMPLINGS

Momos | Makes 16

This recipe comes from a restaurant in McLeodganj (named after a British divisional commissioner) in Himachal Pradesh, just up the road from the Dalai Lama’s residence, and we went there after we’d been to see him. We found him a complete delight. The first thing he said when he met us was, ’You are quite the oldest TV crew I’ve filmed with.’ I suppose I haven’t got a leg to stand on but I felt a bit sorry for some of the crew who are only in their forties. These momos were one of the occasions when I couldn’t get enough, they were that good. Basically they’re just minced lamb, ginger and onion made into a dumpling and steamed, and of course it comes with a fiery Tibetan chilli sauce. It felt special to be sitting down with a crows of monks, eating our momos and drinking sweet tea.

Ingredients:

For the dough:

  • 250 g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 150ml warm water

For the filling:

  • 175g minced lamb
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 15g/3cm ginger, finely grated
  • ¼ tsp salt

To serve:

  • Tibetan chilli sauce

Method:

  1. For the dough, sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and add enough of the warm water to make a firm but not sticky dough. Knead on a lightly floured surface for 1-2 minutes until smooth, then place in a bowl, cover with a plate and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
  2. For the filling, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl.
  3. To assemble the momos, roll the dough into a long sausage on a lightly floured surface, then cut into 16 pieces. Roll a piece of dough into a ball, then use your fingers to flatten it into a thin disc, about 7cm in diameter.
  4. Put a heaped teaspoon of the filling in the middle of the disc and fold the dough over to make a semi-circle, crimping the edges to seal. Then bring the ends of the semi-circle together and pinch to seal. Alternatively, place the mixture in the middle of the dough, bring the edges up and scrunch together like a purse. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
  5. Steam the momos in a lightly oiled steamer for about 15 minutes, until cooked through and piping hot in the middle. Serve hot with the Tibetan chilli sauce.

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WHOLE EGGS IN COCONUT MASALA

Egg Molee | Serves 4

Writing this before the TV series that accompanies the book comes out, I’m not sure whether the recipe we filmed in the home for destitute women in Calcutta will appear in the programme because the cook was so bad-tempered. A shame if it doesn’t, because it’s a nice, simple coconut masala with whole eggs, which are quickly fried before being finished off in the curry. I particularly remember the day there because I was so overwhelmed by the women’s stories.

Ingredients: 

  • 3 tbsp mustard oil or vegetable oil
  • 6 hard-boiled free-range eggs, peeled and left whole
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
  • 400ml coconut milk
  • 2 medium red onions, very thinly sliced
  • 20g/4cm ginger, finely shredded
  • 3 fresh green chillies, thinly sliced, with seeds
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Handful of coriander leaves, chopped
  • ½ tsp garam masala

To serve:

  • Boiled basmati rice

Method:

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan or karahi over a medium heat, add the whole eggs and fry for 1-2 minutes until lightly coloured, then add the turmeric and chilli powder and cook for another 30 seconds.
  2. Stir in the coconut milk and bring to a simmer.
  3. Add the onions, ginger, chillies and salt, and simmer for 5 minutes, until the coconut milk has reduced in volume by half and the onions are just softened, adding a splash of water if it becomes too thick.
  4. Stir in the sugar and coriander and sprinkle with garam masala. Halve the eggs, and serve with rice.

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SAUTÉED PRAWNS AND COURGETTES WITH SALTED LEMON, CORIANDER AND BASIL

Serves 2-4

This recipe comes from the Hotel de l’Orient in Pondicherry. In the French quarter they cook a fusion of Indian and French dishes, which they call Creole cooking. This is a simple dish of prawns with garlic and olive oil but also contains pickled lemon, curry leaves, chilli and garam masala. This was the recipe the chef Ashok cooked for me in the courtyard of the beautiful eighteenth-century French villa, now a hotel. The leaves thrown in at the end could be different, but if you can get the curry leaves that really sets the seal on the Creole element.

Ingredients:

  • 50ml olive oil
  • 5 banana shallots, thinly sliced
  • 20g/4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 20g/4cm ginger, finely shredded
  • 250g large peeled raw prawns
  • 1 medium courgette (about 150g), thinly sliced
  • 30g pickled lemon, thinly sliced
  • ½ tsp finely chopped thyme leaves
  • ½ tsp finely chopped rosemary leaves
  • ½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Small handful each of fresh coriander, curry and basil leaves

Method:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan or karahi over a medium heat.
  2. Add the shallots, garlic and ginger and fry for 5 minutes until softened.
  3. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir in the prawns, courgette and pickled lemon.
  4. Fry for 1-2 minutes, then add the thyme, rosemary, chilli powder, garam masala, black pepper and salt and fry for a further 2-3 minutes, stirring often, or until the prawns are pink and cooked through.
  5. Stir through the coriander, curry and basil leaves and serve.

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MADRAS FISH CURRY OF SNAPPER, TOMATO AND TAMARIND

Serves 4-6

I have written at some length in the main introduction about finding this curry, which I have nominated as my favourite. I’ve used the same fish it was cooked with on that day in Mamallapuram – snapper – but in the UK I recommend using any of the following: monkfish fillet, because you get firm slices of white, meaty fish; filleted bass, preferably a large fish, because although you’ll get softer flesh it has plenty of flavour; or gurnard. I think more than anything else that this dish typifies what I was saying about really fresh fish not being ruined by a spicy curry. I can still remember the slightly oily flavour of the exquisite snapper in that dish because fish oil, when it’s perfectly fresh, is very nice to eat. I always think oily fish goes very well with curry anyway, particularly with the flavours of tomatoes, tamarind and curry leaves.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 15g/3 cloves garlic, finely crushed
  • 30 fresh curry leaves
  • 2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 400g can chopped tomatoes
  • 100ml Tamarind liquid
  • 2 green chillies, each sliced lengthways into 6 pieces, with seeds
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 700g snapper fillets, cut into 5cm chunks
  • Boiled basmati rice, to serve

Method:

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan or karahi over a medium heat.
  2. When hot, add the mustard seeds and fry for 30 seconds, then stir in the onion and garlic and fry gently for about 10 minutes until softened and lightly golden.
  3. Add the curry leaves, chilli powder, coriander and turmeric and fry for 2 minutes, then stir in the tomatoes, tamarind liquid, green chillies and salt and simmer for about 10 minutes until rich and reduced.
  4. Add the fish, cook for a further 5 minutes or until just cooked through, and serve with plain rice.

AMRITSARI FISH COPY

AMRITSARI FISH

Serves 3-6

In India, unlike in the UK, they are blessedwith massive rivers everywhere, so the sight of plentiful, large freshwater fish is common in markets all over the country. They treat fish as they might mutton or paneer, and quite often cook it with a lot of spicy accompaniments, which I think we would find very agreeable if we were more familiar with it. This Amritsari fish is a case in point. When I first tasted it, I knew I had to get it on the menu in the Seafood Restaurant. In India it is often made with singara- a mildly flavoured, local river fish that tastes like a white sea fish with no trace of muddy flavour. I’ve used farmed bream in this recipe; you could also use bass. I like the chickpea flour in the batter; it gives the fish a pleasing savouriness.

Ingredients:

For the fish

  • 10g/2cm ginger, finely grated
  • 8g/1 large clove garlic, finely crushed
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 3x150g fillets of sea bream, each cut into 2

For the batter

  • 1 free-range egg, lightly beaten
  • 5g/1cm ginger, finely grated
  • 4g/1 small clove garlic, finely crushed
  • Mustard oil or vegetable oil, for deep frying

To serve

  • Pinch of chaat masala, lemon wedges, green chutney, kachumber salad

Method:

  1. For the fish, mix together the ginger, garlic and vegetable oil, then rub this over the fish fillets and leave to marinate for 15 minutes.
  2. To make the batter, sift the chickpea flour, turmeric and salt into a bowl.
  3. Mix the egg with the ginger and garlic and 2-3 tablespoons of cold water.
  4. Whisk the liquid into the flour, adding a little more water if needed, until you have a smooth batter with a consistency of double cream.
  5. Heat the mustard or vegetable oil in a sturdy, deep-sided pan over a medium-high heat.
  6. Drop a tiny amount of batter into the hot oil to check it’s hot enough; the batter should rise and bubble.
  7. Coat the fish in the batter, carefully add to the hot oil and fry for 2-3 minutes, turning once, until golden and crisp.
  8. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
  9. Sprinkle with a pinch of chaat masala and serve with lemon wedges, green chutney and kachumber salad.

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CHICKEN SKEWERS WITH CARDAMOM

Serves 4-6

This recipe was created by the head chef of the Spice Village at Thekkady in Kerala. When I first tasted this I was extremely excited because I realized how simple the recipe was, and it’s essential for a book like this to have a fair smattering of recipes you can knock up in, dare I say it, 15 minutes, give or take 3 hours’ marinating. What I particularly like about it, apart from the simplicity, is that it very much features the flavour of one spice, cardamom; the sprinkling of chaat masala at the end is merely an exotic finishing touch. In Australia you can buy jars of cardamom seeds; you can’t get them in Britain. Anybody take the hint?

Recipe note: You need skewers for this dish; if using bamboo or wooden skewers, soak in water for an hour or so first.

Ingredients:

  • 750g skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 4cm pieces
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 fresh red chillies, finely chopped, with or without seeds according to preference
  • 75g ginger, grated
  • 3 tbsp thick Greek-style yogurt
  • 2 tbsp double cream
  • 2 tbsp coconut cream
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom (seeds from about 15 green pods)
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Pinch of chaat masala
  • Rick’s everyday pilau rice, to serve

Method:

  1. Mix the chicken, lime juice, chillies and ginger together in a bowl and marinate for 15 minutes.
  2. In another bowl mix together the yogurt, cream and coconut cream, then stir in the salt, black pepper and cardamom.
  3. Mix with the chicken and marinate in the fridge for a further 2-3 hours.
  4. Preheat the grill to high, or heat a sturdy griddle or frying pan over a high heat (or light a barbecue).
  5. Thread the chicken on to skewers, brush with oil and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side, until charred in places and cooked through.
  6. Sprinkle with chaat masala, if using, and serve with rice.

NIMISH

Serves 6-8

This is a light, set cream from Lucknow flavoured with saffron and rosewater- a typical sweet from the era of the Nawabs and their very inventive chefs. It is standard practice to present the nimish covered with silver leaf as well as pistachios. Due to the almost unbearable heat in Lucknow in the summer, it’s a dish only produced in the cooler winter months; actually, the season only lasts when there is dew on the grass. I had heard that nimish incorporated the early morning dew and assumed this was a bit of romantic frippery, but it’s true: they do collect the dew at night and in the morning whisk it into the cream and milk.

Recipe note: Make the day before you plan to serve it.

Ingredients:

  • 450g double cream
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp rosewater
  • Pinch of saffron strands, soaked in 100ml warm milk for 15 minutes

To decorate

  • Few chopped pistachios and edible silver leaf (optional)

Method:

  1. Whip the cream until soft peaks just start to form- it’s important not to over-whisk it.
  2. Sift in the icing sugar then add the rosewater and the now cool saffron milk and strands.
  3. Whisk together for a minute until smooth and a few bubbles appear on the surface.
  4. Pour gently into small serving bowls or glasses and chill overnight.
  5. Decorate with sliced pistachios, and silver leaf if you like. Serve.

Source: Rick Stein’s India, BBC Books.

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