Adam Baines is passionate about Indian food and blogs as Goodkorma. Visit the About us section on his site for a great story!
By a strange twist of fate, some of the people I care about a lot are also people who care a lot about curry. Close family, close friends – each has discovered for themselves that Indian food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Whenever we meet, and the conversation inevitably turns spicy,we’ll discuss how much Indian food we’ve been cooking. If the answer is a sheepish ‘not much’, then one of us repeats the eternal masala mantra: “Curry, so delicious… but it takes an age to cook.”
If I’d been born a generation later, I might have had the words tattooed on my bicep:
“Curry takes an age to cook.”
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the outer edge of Indian cuisine, preparing a curry can be so slow that cooking becomes an event in itself. Every couple of months, I get together with a couple of male buddies(under the banner of the ‘Curry Club’). We usually tackle an ambitious recipe by Vivek Singh – like his ‘Tandoori Grouse with aubergine crush and parathas’ or his ‘Hot and Sour Wild Boar chops with South Indian rice vermicelli’ (The Cinnamon Club Cookbook). We meet 8ish, open a beer, and start to cook around 9.
More often than not, we actually eat the curry the next day – sometime after midnight. OK, there’s a lot of chat, and sometimes some chaat, along the way – but we are serious about what we cook. Just occasionally, we create something somewhere nearly as delicious as the masterpieces you eat in the Cinnamon Club. Vivek Singh’s recipes let you do that.
But the time it takes! My God, the time!
Three guys cooking for three hours – that’s somewhere in the region of 8-9 man-hours at the chopping board and stove, to produce a dish we’ll eat in 30 minutes.
And here’s the miracle: I honestly believe you can taste every single one of those hundreds of minutes. I’ll never forget the moment when three bleary-eyed men took their first mouthful of curried grouse: cooked two ways in the pan and oven and wrapped in aubergine-stuffed paratha. We were literally astonished. The taste of 21 ingredients and three hours’ cooking came together in that moment.
So when I read about the physicists in Cern – chasing stuff to the speed of light, and smashing it into smaller stuff that survives for a billionth of a second – I try to picture the curry alchemists like Vivek Singh. Technicians who do it the slow way: introducing curry sub-particles to each other over hours and days, and slowly combining them into a single, sublime taste that stays with you forever.
Curry is the taste of timelessness.
Some people who know a lot about curry than me will try to tell you otherwise – but their arguments somehow prove my point. My heart froze when I saw that Pushpesh Pant (author of the brilliant India) had written a book called Indian Fast Food (with a video Fast Forward icon as the logo!). I needn’t have worried. His recipe for Fried Fish Amritsari style is fairly typical of Pushpent Pant’s definition of fast food: ‘preparation time 1 hour; cooking time 15 minutes; 15 ingredients’!
If you’re looking for a truly timeless curry cookbook Rinku Bhattacharya’s spellbinding Bengali Five Spice Chronicles starts with a dedication to: ‘the past, the present, the future’, as she introduces you to three generations of family members. Having met the family, you then travel with Rinku through Bengali history, its seasons and festivals via the medium of changeless Bengali recipes. Highly recommended.
And on the twin themes of ‘timelessness’ and ‘highly recommended’, I owe this whole blog to the lovely @Biryaniquest. Thank you, Poornima, for inspiring us all with your on-going Biryaniquest, and for hosting this piece. I hope we meet very soon in the real world, and share a curry.
As an archaeologist, Poornima knows that the word biryani has been around since the thirteenth century (around the same time that the samosa and naan are first mentioned in Delhi) and that other elements of Indian cuisine go back much further still.
The deep-fried delights we enjoy today as dahivada were first described under that name in Sutra literature in 500BC, while coriander (dhaniya) is referred to a century earlier. Chana – the ubiquitous chickpea – traces its heritage back to 2,500 BC in the Indus valley, while cave paintings of chapatti-like dough balls date back to 8,000 BC. The wonderful (and wonderfully eccentric) Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by KT Achaya tells you all this and more.
And your papadom, sir, is first mentioned in 500 BC in Buddhist-Jain literature.
Curry takes an age to cook.
So when my family is invited to eat with lovely neighbours Den and Leona in the New Forest, we know the masala pheasant they’re serving us has relaxed for hours in two different marinades before its pan-fried epiphany; that the lamb on the same table has come from their own Portland flock, and been air-dried before simmering patiently in the passanda. Then there’s the dals, the breads, the chutneys, the dozens of hand-ground spices, the freshly chopped herbs…
Den and Leona aren’t just serving us a meal– or their culinary skill – they’re serving us their time.
And it’s there in every mouthful.
As a host, there are the moments of curry romance:steeping the tamarind pods for four hours in water to release the tart flavour; baby-sitting the dosa batter in the airing cupboard the whole night to get the perfect balance of liquid and froth.
And there are the moments of curry panic:four pans on the hob; twenty minutes to go before guests turn up; umpteen ghee-spattered recipe books scattered across the kitchen.
Looking at our frazzled faces, dinner guests in our house sometimes ask what time we started cooking. When we answer ‘7 a.m.’ they look perplexed. When we add ‘yesterday’, they look at us as if we’re crazy.
And I’d agree, someone in this equation IS crazy.
In one corner, you’ve got the digital society – in which ‘faster’ is the new God. Faster upload; faster download; faster connection; faster interface; faster phone; faster app’; faster, faster, faster.
In the other corner, you’ve got Indian food, a process of nutrition that puts every known virtue (taste, texture, colour, consistency) ahead of speed.
Yes, occasionally, it drives me bonkers. On a day where I’ve got three curries and as many chutneys on the go–for just one family meal – the progress is sometimes sogrindingly slow I feel like one of those small vertebrates who spend their entire life feeding just to survive.
For the families who cook three curries a day, I salute you. I simply don’t know how you do it
BUT whenever I cook – or am served – a great curry, I feel hopeful.
And here’s why:
For me…slow curries are the spanner in our digital future.
Since the birth of personal computing and the web, we’ve been sold an equation that faster = better. Anything you can access faster – images, words, sounds, ideas, objects, people, places – is more modern, more efficient, simply more enjoyable.
And it scares the hell out of me. It scares me because some of the things I love the most – family bonds, friendships, books, cycling, curries – are all slow, ambling, first-gear stuff. I worry where ‘slow’ fits into the future, and what all the things I love will look like in a fast world.
So please share a curry with me. You cook, I’ll cook. It doesn’t matter. Let’s meet in the real world, and learn even slower ways to cook – cutting out every shortcut until we’re manipulating untreated Mother Nature with our bare hands. No machines, no prepared ingredients – just pure, raw ingredients and Indian culinary genius.
And as we spend hours doing what comes out of a microwave in seconds, we’re waving a battle flag against ‘fast’.
We’re saying that the most precious commodity we can give each other is time.
I don’t want to fast. I want to eat.
And to mis-quote Sandi Thom’s brilliant anthem on modern life:“I wish I was a curry chef with spices in my hair.”
Ps. If you like this, please don’t hit ‘Like’. Ask Poornima to put us in touch – and we’ll share words, ideas and recipes via the slowest medium that works.
Pps. I’m very aware of the irony that I’m talking to you now via a digital medium. I’m sizing up digital – taking it slowly.