5.03.2014

For the Love of Curry

I remember my first Indian meal as if it were yesterday - and I wasn't too keen on it, as I recall. That is particularly amusing to me now, as Indian food is not merely a favorite, but has become a go-to comfort food for any night of the week.

That first taste of cilantro was so strange. Was it gasoline fumes? Or was it just some unusual green flavor I’d never had? And raita? I don't think I had ever had yogurt before that day, either. And why was that chicken so red?

That was the mid-1980s and I was in New York City with my friend Chris. I can't remember why we were there, but he suggested going to Little India, a neighborhood of the Lower East Side, and I said, "Sure... why not?"

Everything about the meal was unfamiliar... the flavors, the aromas, even the music being played. That which was so very unfamiliar that day in 1985, is now part of my everyday life. Go figure.

This exotic and complex cuisine started a love affair with Indian culture. From the ethereal and cascading ragas, to the exquisite painting and sculptures, to the warmth and openness of the people, everything Indian has become more and more fascinating.

When I first moved to Maine and worked in Gloucester almost 20 years ago, I made an improbable hire for my assistant at the North Shore Health Project. This part-time job paid a pittance and was mostly to help me with routine administrative tasks.

I approached the volunteer who edited and managed the newsletter, offered her the job, and discovered that she holds a PhD in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania. For some reason, and to this day neither of us is sure why, she accepted and it started a wonderful friendship - a friendship that has fed my love of India.

Susan's true love is writing. Mystery novels, to be exact. She has an entire series that takes place in a fictional town which oddly resembles her hometown on the North Shore of Boston.

She also has written a series that takes place in South India - a place where she lived and I dream of going - for the cuisine, architecture, and people. It is there I hope someday to meet Anita Ray.

My new Indian spice box - a very special gift brought from India for me by my friend Ravi.
But this will never happen. Oh, sure, I will get to Kerala one day, but I will never meet Anita, as she is a figment of Susan's very creative imagination. And Anita is the star of her three mysteries that take place in Kerala.

Her third book - an advanced copy I convinced Susan to send - recently arrived in the mail. For the Love of Parvati will be available to the world this month, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon. I started it that day, am almost finished, and am already bugging her for another Anita Ray mystery!

One of the things I love about Susan’s books is how much I learn about the culture... not just the food (which is very important), but the traditions, ways of life, and superstitions. If I close my eyes, the vivid descriptions take me to places I only dream of going.

Her first two books - Under the Eye of Kali and The Wrath of Shiva - were great fun to read, and I highly recommend them if you like mysteries and want to feel as though you are in India. Both are available in Kindle editions.

And, while you are reading, you can make this wonderful vegetarian curry which will warm a chilly spring night and make you feel as if you are in Kerala. (In the book, Anita sits down to a full thali served, as is traditional, on a banana leaf… someday – maybe when Susan visits next year – I will make a full thali.)

To read more about her, check out Susan on her website and blog - and now I need to get back to finish Parvati

~ David

Sweet Potato and Chickpea Curry

2 medium white onions, peeled
1 bird’s eye pepper or Thai chili with its seeds
1 2½- to-3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
3 tablespoons canola oil
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
pinch asafetida (optional)
salt
2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½- to-1-inch cubes
1¾ cups coconut milk
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
2¼ cups hot vegetable broth
4 15.5-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6 ounces baby spinach
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
cooked jasmine or basmati rice for serving (optional)

In a food processor, combine onions, hot pepper and fresh ginger. Pulse until finely chopped. Place oil in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add chopped onion mixture and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add hot pepper flakes, ground ginger, ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom seeds, asafetida (if using), and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir to mix. Add sweet potatoes and stir until well covered in spices. Stir in the coconut milk.

Dissolve tamarind concentrate in hot broth and add to pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until sweet potatoes are just tender, about 25 minutes. (Taste potatoes to be sure they are cooked all the way through.)

Add chickpeas and spinach; simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes. Adjust salt. Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Serve with basmati rice. I also serve a chutney and some raita alongside.

Makes 6 to 8 servings. 

Disclaimer: While I was sent review copy from the author, my opinions are my own and I was not required to write a positive review. 

44 comments:

  1. Good morning, fabulous friend! I love your spice box and the recipe. I also love the fabrics underneath the dishes. Parvati is getting great reviews. Thanks for featuring the book on your blog.

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    1. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to read Parvati while writing this post! I loved the book, and cannot wait for the next. xo

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  2. What an wonderful post! I know next to nothing about Indian food, but I find myself getting, as Alice said curioser and curioser. The tastes and smells are different from what I know - basic American fare heavily tinted with Italian. Thanks for the introduction.

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    1. Thanks, Adri! When people ask me what my favorite cuisine is, I tell them that, depending on my mood, it is generally either Italian or Indian. I find them both the ultimate comfort food cuisines!

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    2. Your response reminds me of a conversation my daughter Alex, four years-old at the time, had with her pediatrician. When the doctor asked her what her favorite food was, she replied, "Indian food." The doctor said, "what?" Alex repeated, "Indian food" and when he asked yet again, she raised her voice in frustration, "INDIAN FOOD." The doctor looked at both of us and said that in all his years of practice--I would guess at least thirty--he had never had a child tell him that Indian food was her favorite! This recipe looks like something she would like...I know I will like it!

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    3. I love that, Susan! It would be an easy dish for Alex to throw together, and it is a great party dish, too.

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  3. I love that the impetus for this post was your friend's book! Perhaps a book group will be inspired enjoy some Indian food while discussing the book! Sounds like a great combo!

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    1. Mark and I both enjoy thematic parties based on books and movies. Big Night. Babette's Feast. (Doing Babette's Feast with you two and Lisa was a blast!) So many options that are all about the food.

      By the way, you asked on Facebook what is in the spice box. Well, clockwise from the turmeric (most obvious for its yellow color), I have cayenne chile powder, green cardamom pods, garam masala, chile flakes, brown mustard seeds, and cumin seeds in the center.

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  4. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Indian food! Actually, I take that back...good Indian food! Will have to check out Susan's blog...nice post, as usual!

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    1. You are so right, Christina! Good Indian food is amazing. Luckily, we have some good options here. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  5. Salivating! It is so bitterly cold here today and your beautiful curry looks so nourishing and warm! Yum! Loved the introduction too!

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    1. Stay warm, Liz! I hope you get to try this dish!

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  6. I think my first taste of Indian was back in the 80's as well. Probably at some unglamorous food hall at the local shopping centre!
    I adore Indian food. In fact I made a masoor dal yesterday - enough to feed a small village! Pity you don't live closer, David!

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    1. The masoor dal sounds incredible, John! I really wish I was down the street for that!

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  7. Love the spice box, perfect size and everything. Curries like this are my favorite, especially served along side a chutney and a little raita.

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    1. Cheri - I can't tell you how thrilled I was when Ravi brought that spice box back to me from India! It is a prized item in my kitchen!

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  8. So, what did you eat that made you change your mind about Indian food? It's true that many people diss our good because one, they assume it's too hot or two, they had a bad experience the first time. When I first met Trace, he hadn't tried Indian food. We had a good enough restaurant in Denver back then and being a buffet, I was able to introduce him to different dishes. He loves Indian food and I can make 7 days a week and he won't complain. My family originates from South/Central India, Hyderabad. It's food is a perfect fusion of North and South Indian cooking. Come and visit me soon!! In the meantime, your veg curry looks amazing!!! Gorgeous, vibrant colours!

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    1. I think it was only the first bite of cilantro/coriander that tasted odd. From the on, I just loved it!

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  9. I remember well the first Indian dish I had at a restaurant in Denver called Royal India (I think, not sure) Of course it was probably the most common of dishes but I didn't know that. It was chicken korma. I thought it was delicious. I love creamy dishes and curry flavorings. I have since bought a couple of Indian cookbooks and tried other dishes. I would still like to know what is the BEST Indian restaurant in Denver or Boulder.
    We do not eat at restaurants much but on our rare trips to Denver and Boulder we would love to have a worthwhile experience!
    Thanks for the review of Susan's books. I am going to Amazon right now to order the first one. India fascinates me to no end!

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    1. Caterina - my friend Nazneen is East Indian and lives in the Boulder-Denver area. I will ask her what she thinks are the best Indian food in the area, and then get back to you.

      I hope you enjoyed Susan's first book!

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    2. There is a fabulous place in South Boulder in the same complex as the King Souper on Broadway and Table Mesa (I think.) I once had the most divine lamb and apricot dish there. It must be 8 years ago and I still think about it.

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    3. Thanks for checking in with that Rachel! I will make sure Caterina gets the message! I hope I is still there.

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  10. Another thought. I adore the movie "Babette's Feast." I recently watched it again on TCM. I had not seen it for quite a few years.
    It would be a lot of fun AND hard work to cook a similar feast.
    Do you have photos of your "Babette's Feast?"

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    1. You know, Caterina, there were photos taken. I will talk to my friend Towny and have him send them. Maybe it's time to do a post on the movie! I wasn't heard, because each couple took a course. I got the qualls in sarcophagi - and they were really tasty!

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  11. Strangely enough, I'm planning to make a chickpea curry tonight! Seeing your post makes me want to add in a sweet potato also. Sounds so delicious and perfectly warming for the cold weather that we're getting here at the moment (I'm still getting used to wearing jumpers/sweaters again!). Haha... the 'gasoline fumes' comment about the coriander made me laugh! I personally love coriander/cilantro but I have a good male friend who thinks I'm torturing him whenever I use it. Hate is too soft a word for his relationship with coriander! I don't remember the first time I ate Indian food but I'm sure it was love at first taste. The complexity and fragrance of curries has a special place in my heart! x

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    1. Hope your curry turned out great, Laura! How similar are the recipes? Hope you post on it soon. xox

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  12. Such a warm and comforting curry! I grew up with cilantro and curry and raita - but I remember the first time I tasted spaghetti - I was totally enthralled!

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    1. Shashi - sometimes first bites are the mst amazing. And, for me, every bite thereafter of Indian food has continued to make me so happy! And Italian, too!

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  13. D, I love reading your beautiful posts. You're such a good storyteller. What a lovely friend you have. That spice box is so pretty.
    BTW Thanks for contributing to xerces.org to help save the bees. You're such a sweetheart, David! xoxo

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    1. Thanks, Colette! You are so sweet. You know, when I started the blog, I was most afraid of the writing... and it turns out to be my favorite part! (Well, next to eating the food!)

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  14. David, in the recipe you call for coconut milk. Is it from the chilled carton or canned? And if canned, can it be low fat? I imagine that this can change the outcome of the recipe. I plan on making this as soon as I find the one ingredient that I am missing-asafetida. What is it? Is there a substitute? I know it is optional, but I imagine that it must add something to the mix!

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    1. Hi, Suzo - when I first made this, I used full fat canned coconut milk. Now, when I make it, I use light coconut milk, with a preference or Trader Joe's. The asefetida is also called 'hing' and simply adds a unique onion-like flavor to Indian foods. You can definitely skip it if you want! xox

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  15. A friendship that includes curry, wine and a good read. I think we'd all get along very well. GREG

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    1. I agree, Greg. It would be fun to be in the same room at least once.

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  16. Curry, tamarind, cilantro, comfort food . . . these are a few of my favorite things! LOVE Indian food, and your stories. :-)

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  17. Thanks Valentina! You are so sweet!

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  18. David, So sorry I’ve been missing in action. Between watching my grandkids for a week, Easter and a wine party that I hosted, I have’nt had much time for the computer.
    So glad I didn’t miss this wonderful post. I always love reading your lovely stories. Beautiful spice box, and your curry looks and sounds deliciously appetizing!
    I love reading a good mystery. I will be checking out Susan’s books today!

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    1. Thanks, Kathy! I know busy you have been - me, too! I am so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you can find Susan's books to read. I have been really busy, too, and only seem to be able to read everyone's blogs on the weekends!

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  19. Dear David, I have never ventured into Indian cooking but you certainly make it sound utterly amazing. I love how you wove the literature and cultural aspects into this post together with this wonderful recipe for a Sweet Potato and Chickpea Curry.
    That Indian spice box looks amazing - what a fabulous gift to receive from a good friend! And the books sound very intriguing as well!
    Thanks for making my Thursday - this is one wonderful and different blog post! Love it!
    Liebe Grüße aus dem sehr kühlen Bonn (goodness, I hope the weather turns warmer - I am hosting lunch for 12 children tomorrow and I was planning on eating outside..)
    Andrea

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    1. Oh wow, Andrea - 12 kids and you might need to be indoors? You are a brave soul! I hope the weather warms up for you...

      Indian cooking is so very different from most of the things I do - I think you would like it. Yes, I love the spice box - and will cherish that memory from Ravi.

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  20. When I went to India for a month, I had the most wonderful meal the first night there. Loved the flavors and spices. Then I got sick, as so many tourists do, and for years after that I couldn't eat Indian or Mexican... but couldn't understand why. Then I figured out it was the coriander/cilantro. Now, many years later, I love Indian food and cook it too. I buy cilantro whenever I can find it here and love it with a passion. Your friend's books sound really interesting... I loved India and was lucky to travel with Indian friends who introduced us to the "real" India.

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    1. Fiona - how wonderful that you were able to spend an entire month there! I dream of going and, perhaps, one day I will make it. Even my Indian friends who live here often get sick when they travel over.

      Glad you have gotten over the dislike of cilantro - I never thought about how hard it would be to find in Milan. I do remember being really pleasantly surprised to find tarragon in Venice

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  21. It's really great combination of food and wine.I really like this blog.
    Restaurants in Noida

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