An old student of mine (as in, she used to be my student, not a student of mine who is old) is currently traveling in India and has posted some pictures on “YouFace”, as my mother refers to it.
A lightning shot of envy coursed through me as I saw her pictures of smoky, hazy Varanasi. That was replaced by memories as I got my own photo album out. Her images, like mine of the same ghats, portray such an image of serenity and quiet: the river always calm, the air hanging thickly above it, the sun blazing behind a curtain of smog. But in my head I could hear the cacophony: the clanging of bells, the hawking of this-or-that-wallahs, the women shouting at husbands, kids, stray cows, each other. Perhaps deep within those bathers at the shore is the serenity captured in the pictures; they bathe in the holy water, oblivious to the ashes floating by, to the cow drinking beside them, to the filth in the air and water, to the shouting women. They pour water from the Ganges over their heads and close their eyes and are at peace in that holiest of rivers.
When I was in India, I was usually far from “at peace”. It was a crazy, often stressful, totally alien place for me to be. I was always on guard for scams (I got scammed), always afraid of getting sick (I didn’t), and always wondering where the heck I was. It didn’t take me long to decide to slow down and enjoy the place where I was. I got into the habit of buying a book – only Indian authors allowed – and staying in one town till I had finished it. Then I would trade it in, get a bus or train ticket, and head off. It took me ages to get anywhere like this but I think I saw more than I would have if I had spent my whole time there sweating and cursing on some godforsaken train. Anyway, I never got the hang of trains. One time, convinced that my train was late (everything is late in India), I sat in front of it on the platform for about 20 minutes till it was time for it to leave. It left. With me standing on the platform. I thought it was another train, but the fruit-wallah told me it was going to Agra – without me.
Pretty much every train or bus trip I took has a story – like the one where I thought I had it all figured out, but in the end had bought a ticket for the wrong month. Traveling in India is just not what I’d call relaxing. But it refreshes in a different way: It fills the senses, opens the mind, and forces us to question everything about our lives in the West. Oh, and it makes us fat.
Anyway, all this to say, it got me thinking about India, my trip there, and the FOOD.
There is no use trying to reproduce the food.
They have special stuff encrusted on their pots that makes their curries magic. They have spices that have not been sitting on grocery store shelves for decades. They have no idea how to pass on what they do, cause they just do it, like their mothers “just did it”, and their grandmothers before them. And when you ask them what is in their chai to make it so perfectly sweet-spicy, they say, “masala”. OK. I can handle mystery.
But I do hanker for that food. And while I know I can’t really make it in my own kitchen, there is one curry that consistently makes me happy for a few reasons:
- it’s saucy
- it’s easy
- it’s tasty
- it’s adaptable
- it’s fast
- Frida likes it!
All of these things combine to make it my emergency dinner dish when I haven’t done the groceries and/or I’ve been futzing around doing unimportant things all day (such as skiing, reading, world-wide-webbing, or making biscotti) and forgot to make dinner.
So, as a special favour to you, and to fulfill my vow to share non-dessert items with you, here is my dee-lish curry (no picture because it was really, really ugly. The picture, not the curry.). I’ve written down the basic recipe, and some ways to adapt it afterwards. Serve it with basmati rice and/or naan bread, a dollop of yogurt on top, and always, always, fresh cilantro.
Adapted from MediterrAsian.com
Makes enough for about 6 folks to eat and then have room for dessert.
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp (or more to taste) fresh ginger, minced
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cumin (freshly ground, if possible)
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can coconut milk
1/4 cup red lentils
Fresh cilantro for garnish
1 cup Basmati rice
- In a 3-5 quart pot, wok or dutch oven, sauté the onion in the canola oil over medium heat until softened, 8-ish minutes.
- Add the garlic, ginger, salt, and all the spices, stir & cook for about a minute till fragrant. Don’t let the garlic char. Keep it movin’.
- Add the can of tomatoes and the coconut milk along with the lentils, reduce the heat to med-low, and let it simmer till the lentils are cooked, about 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the rice. Follow the instructions on the bag.
- Squeeze a tablespoon or two of lemon juice into the pot, stir in a handful of chopped cilantro, and serve over the rice, with lots of lovely cilantro sprinkled on top, with a dollop of plain yogurt.
Other things you could add:
- Toasted and chopped cashews as garnish
- Chick peas
- Shrimp (we get these little tiny shrimp that are caught locally, they are great in the curry)
- White fish like cod