One of India’s biggest, but unacknowledged, exports to the world is the curry. From Africa to the Caribbean, south-east Asia to the UK, the curry in various forms and flavours, bears testimony to colonial trade and the major part that spices from India played in it. Yet, curry itself is not quite an Indian term. Nor is the concept, as understood largely the world over, really part of our regional cuisines.
As any food historian will claim, the term itself came into being when British settlers took up the Tamil word kaari, meaning pepper water or pepper infused, and popularised it as standing for the typically spicy gravy they tried to replicate in their own kitchens. For this they used a generic spice mix, ‘curry powder’ that you will still never find in Indian stores.
Indian regional kitchens, on the other hand, have always thrived on their masalas. Not just individual spices but different combinations of spices, yielding wonderfully diverse flavours. It is the judicious use of these masalas that differentiates a good cook from the bad. And it is surprising how culinary creations even from the same region or micro-region can be using the same spices but in different combinations.
Last week, I had the opportunity to take a relaxing cooking class by the sea that unlocked for me the secrets of the Goan kitchen. Chef Zorawar Singh, a tattooed, enthusiastic young chef, originally from Jaipur, but who now looks after the kitchen of the boutique hotel, The Park on The Beach, taught me the basic Goan masalas in a wonderful cooking class on a rainy day, as the sea outside raged on.
While so much is made of seafood in the shacks, few people, aside from those that have vacationed to and spent time in Goa hotels, really understand the finer nuances of Goan food—much of which can be categorised neatly according to the basic masala used in individual dishes. In fact, Goa is interesting not just because of a coming together of Portuguese and coastal Maharashtrian influences in its cuisine, but also because the spice combinations used in different curries are so well defined, unlike in many other regional kitchens.
You can easily do these at home. Here are the basics:
Cafreal: This is a fresh green masala. Blend together fresh coriander and mint leaves with a little capsicum (for colour), ginger, garlic, turmeric, green chillies, onion and sugar. All the Goan masalas have a pinch of sugar added to balance the salty-spicy flavours, says Zorawar. But the most important ingredient in all the Goan masalas is the coconut vinegar (fermented toddy) that gives the cuisine a distinctive taste. If you don’t have this, substitute with tamarind. According to Zorawar, this is an African influence on the state’s cuisine.
Goan curry: Ever raved about the fish curry you had in a shack? Well, you can recreate that in your own landlocked home by blending freshly grated coconut, turmeric powder, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, a ball of de-seeded tamarind, red chillies, ginger and garlic paste and, of course, sugar. All the Goan masalas are colour coded—this one ranges from yellow to orange, depending on which home you are having it in. Clearly, a Saraswat (coastal Hindu) influence, the masala incorporates more haldi and no onion and garlic if it is in a Hindu home, and milder Kashmiri red chillies to give it an orange colour in Christian homes, Zorawar says. It is also a fascinating look at the sociology of food in the same microcosm.
Xacuti masala: This one is a favourite because of its wonderful complexity thanks to the roasted spices. First make a dry masala roasting and blending together cloves, green cardamom, star anise, fennel, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, Kashmiri red chillies and rice powder. Next make a wet masala: heat coconut oil and add onion, green chillies, ginger and garlic and fresh coconut. Add curry leaves and coriander leaves and a pinch of turmeric. When sauted, blend and then mix with the dry spice mix. This becomes a masala to coat the heavier meats—pork, and beef, typically.
Peri Peri: These are small Portuguese chillies, but you can make this with any chilli. Zorawar’s recipe comprises Kashmiri red chillies, cloves, cardamom, cumin, peppercorn, cinnamon, ginger and garlic, turmeric, sugar, onion and Goan vinegar in which all these need to be soaked overnight. Grind everything together. This is a bright red paste and the basic masala for sorpotel (to which pork fat is added), vindalloo and even for Goan sausage.
Next time, don’t be confused, order right, even at your favourite touristy shack!
(The article appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday)