"The complex flavours of curries are governed by just three things: generous spicing; onion, ginger and garlic done just right; and something to give it body. Then simply improvise..." Henry Dimbleby - The Guardian
I say curry, but we all know that we shouldn't really use that word - even though Madhur Jaffrey often uses it because, as she says in her introduction to her 2003 book The Ultimate Curry Bible:
"I have designated as a curry any Indian or Indian-style dish with a sauce; just as the British colonialists who controlled India for centuries before I was born, defined it. It is not exactly my definition. Indians tend to call dishes by their individual names when speaking in their own languages ... But the British definition seems to have stuck, so that is the one I use here."
I wonder if she would say the same today - we all seem to be so politically correct in modern times and tip toe around such terms as 'curry'. Indeed I sometimes wonder whether 'curry' today actually applies to dishes that have an Indian (or South-East Asian feel) made up by non-Indians, rather than the original Indian dishes.
Anyway my original question has a few different aspects to it - the first being why, when I have so many really good Indian recipe books don't I delve into them more often and make something from them - real Indian food, and the other is why don't I attempt to make my own versions every now and then?
With respect to the books I have that first one - the little paperback Cooking the Indian Way, which taught me some fundamental things about cooking curry - yes I will call it curry - which were the most common spices - the general four step process - cook onions, ginger and garlic, add your spice mix, then your meat (or vegetables) and then the liquid. It also taught me that you added garam masala at the end on its own - ditto for lemon or lime juice. Very occasionally if whole spices are involved, you cook them first on their own, briefly, before the onions, etc. And that method has been reinforced over the years by my other gurus - first Charmaine Solomon, then Madhur Jaffrey - and my latest Christine Manfield whose Indian Cooking Class is a gem. There are a few outliers as well - suffice to say that I have heaps of books from which to choose not to mention the net of course.
Then there's the parade of cooks from other places who have a go - Jamie Oliver, I guess would top the list here - he has 119 recipes on his website with the term curry in the title of the recipe - so I'm guessing there are probably more. Even Delia has heaps. So there's no shortage of recipes to choose from.
Is that the problem do you think? That there's too much to choose from, so too long to find the perfect recipe for how you are feeling on a particular day? Is it because the lists of ingredients look daunting? I should have got over that by now, because I know that I have most of them and that mostly it's just a matter of throwing them all into a spice grinder or a food processor to make your spice blend.
Is it because, that there often are no pictures? I'm not quite sure why that should be a thing with Indian cookbooks, but it seems to be. Is that because curries often end up looking brown and stewlike? I do remember Nigella saying that 'brown food' was difficult to photograph well. Which isn't true anyway. A talented photographer can make anything look good. As a quick example - I just searched Google images - here is Lamb Rogan Josh from Taste.com - a website aimed at the ordinary cook but which nevertheless sometimes has classy photography and, in this case, a pretty authentic looking recipe.
We've been here before on the photograph thing though haven't we? Photographs might tempt you, but they might also put you off. I mean will your rogan josh look as good as this one? As I have said many times, cookbooks never used to have many pictures and we still made the dishes described therein. Not knowing what a dish is supposed to look like might well be an advantage.
Is it because I have a husband with specific dislikes - with respect to curry this would be chilli, and coconut which rules out a whole spectrum of recipes? The chilli is not so difficult, I just either tone it right down or leave out altogether. OK it will not then be as it should be but it will be perfectly OK. And I could throw a curry party with a mix of dishes, some of which are hot and some not. To be fair to him he does try the chilli heavy dishes that others have chosen, when we go out for an Indian meal (when was the last time we did that?) but it is rare that he has more than a mouthful. Coconut though is impossible to leave out when it's there. Maybe I should just go for broke and try it again sometime.
Of all of the above reasons I think the 'too many to choose from' is probably the most likely. And I could get over that by just doing a lucky dip from a particular book and if I don't like the lucky dip dish, flicking a few pages either way. Something will come up.
Every now and then I make a 'cheat's curry with a commercial curry paste. These days we are spoiled for choice on these. Mostly I use Patak's and even they have several different ones to choose from. Then there is Sharwood's and a whole heap of newer ones as well. So it's not just a choice between one or two. A whole range of possibilities is there, not to mention the whole range of ingredients that you can put in your curry. But you know good as they are - and they actually are - I always end up feeling that I have cheated, that I could do better, that I have been lazy.
And here we come to the other real reason why I don't cook curry more often. I simply do not have the confidence to go blind as it were - to make it up. Make my own curry.
When I cook anything from the European zone of dishes I am very familiar with all the herbs, spices, liquids, vegetables - the whole range of available food. I know what goes with what - years of experience have taught me this, so I can improvise. Besides we Europeans tend not to load one dish with a vast array of different flavourings. There are generally just two or three. When it comes to Indian food however, I simply do not understand the subtle differences. The range of spices is so large, and besides what goes with what? What should predominate? Do you always need turmeric, garlic, ginger or can you leave them out?
"learning to cook Indian food successfully demands an understanding of spice."
says Christine Manfield, and frankly I don't think I have that. I sort of know what each spice tastes like but I don't know what to put with what - other than the basic cumin, coriander and turmeric with perhaps paprika too. That seems to be the basic combination - but surely just adding those is no better than using a commercial curry paste or powder? Besides even if you know the basic combination of spices, what is the specific proportion of one to the other, and will changing that proportion change the taste? Well I guess so but is that a good or a bad thing?
I do know the liquids a little better - I know that I can choose from yoghurt, tomatoes, vinegar, tamarind - or simply water or stock but spices? I also suspect that I actually don't have a very refined palate if that's the right terminology, and so even if I did follow the chef's dictum of 'taste, taste, taste' (and I don't) I wouldn't really know what was lacking - if indeed anything is. Occasionally I have just thrown together a curry with a mix of spices just taken at random from the store cupboard, but I honestly couldn't tell you whether it was a good result or not. Well good enough but could it have been better? Again Christine Manfield thinks she is giving good advice when she says:
"Experiment with the intricacies of spice chemistry until the blending becomes instinctive and know that a properly spiced dish should be awake, but not angry. Once this skill is mastered, you will enjoy one of the most pleasant culinary euphoria - the harmony of flavours."
Hmm. Instinctive? I suspect I shall never master this and that I fit into her category of novice:
"For the novice cook there's a lot to learn." Christine Manfield
Too much, in fact, for this late in my life. Still I could have a go at throwing in this and that I suppose - trouble is that I'm not very good at writing anything down, so if by some serendipity I did devise something wonderful I most probably wouldn't be able to remember what I put in. So I think it's either being lazy and using a premixed something or other, or else it's a recipe. Whilst checking out my books for this post I found two that look promising: Chicken pepper fry from Christine Manfield - the first two pictures - one from the book (the first) and the second from SBS who publishes the recipe - slightly different name but same recipe - which is interesting that the exact same recipe made in exactly the same way could look so, well, different, in the end. Then there is Madhur Jaffrey's . Mughlai lamb with spinach - otherwise known as Paalag Gosht - you might think it's Saag Gosht - but apparently Saag could mean any greens, whereas Paalag means specifically spinach. Another classic which doesn't look anything like the Saag Ghosts that I have had in Indian restaurants.
And tonight by some weird coincidence from a start of wanting to cook a slow lamb roast with beans in order to achieve my legume hit of the week and please David by cooking lamb, I have ended up cooking that Spicy lamb roast by Ottolenghi that I featured the other day. Well not completely. I have stuck with his marinade, although I have a half leg rather than a shoulder because the shoulders were just too big and too expensive but I am changing the method a bit - well not the method just the ingredients in the roasting sauce - well it was coconut cream and, as I said, this is a no no in this house. The coincidence is that the spices in the marinade are more Indian than Middle-Eastern which is what you might have expected from Ottolenghi. No doubt it will be a delicious blend. But then he - or someone on his team - knows what he (or she) is doing. I suspect I shall have ruined a perfectly wonderful recipe by throwing in some extra tomato sauce that I had in the freezer, some green beans, and some leftover ham glaze - now that could be really wrong. I just wanted to get rid of it. We'll see.