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)
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. 

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