My Mother, Making Curry

AS PUBLISHED IN The Paupered Chef

Joelle Hann writes about her family roots in curry, pomegranate martinis, and the etymology of “asafoetida” — an apparently stinky ingredient that the French call “devil’s shit,” and which holds the secret to vegetarian Indian cooking.

My mother was born in New Delhi, India, on midsummer night’s eve — June 24—1940. World War II was raging in the Western world, and India was not far from declaring its independence from Britain. Her parents worked for the Lord and Lady Viceroy to India, and had been living in India for some time, her mother as the seamstress, and her father, a Rolls Royce engineer, as the chauffeur.

Although they were servants, my grandparents had servants themselves. My mother had an ayah, or nannie, to tend to her, and no doubt the ayah took my mother along on visits to the Viceroy’s kitchen when she went looking for snacks, gossip, and companionship. It was in the steamy subcontinental kitchen that my mother acquired her love for the pungent aromas of Indian cooking, and, as an adult with a family of her own, she frequently recreated the meals she remembered so fondly from childhood. (My mother and my grandparents were eventually evacuated from India by the British Army in 1946).

That was fine with us. We all liked curry. In fact, on a family trip to England, when I was 14, my father and I competed to see who could eat the hottest curry. Trembling — crying, really, our eyes streaming with water, our palates blasted from the merciless spice — we worked our way through a few curry palaces in London and in the south where he was from.

In spite of this pedigree, I have hesitated to make curries myself. My mother’s curries were prized staples of her cooking repertoire, but were also painfully elaborate to make with all the side dishes, popadums, chapattis, chutneys (homemade, of course). Personally, I don’t like complicated cooking and never want to be “slaving over a hot stove,” no matter who I’m cooking for.

But this past fall, after carting home a large head of cauliflower from the local Saturday farm stand, and not knowing at all what to do with it (white sauce? surely not) I discovered a simple, cheap, and by-golly delicious recipe for cauliflower and pea curry in my favorite cookbook. It does require a trip to an Indian-foods supply store as the three key spices are not ones you are going to find at C-Town, or even Whole Foods. But once you’ve purchased them, you pretty much have a lifetime’s supply ($3 or so each).

I made the curry again this past Friday for a friend who was visiting. It was warming, soothing, with nice alternating textures — crunchy here, juicy there — and not so labor intensive that I missed hanging out with company during the preparations. With a sweet Riesling to counter the spicy heat (we immediately ran out of mango chutney), it was energetic, provocative, and sociable, and it inspired a long and hilarious investigation into asafoetida, word and thing (it’s a tree gum, and one of the curry’s magic ingredients).

This recipe is borrowed from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. The ingredients that make this curry sing are asafoetida, green mango powder and garam masala. You can’t do without them, so plan ahead.

Curried Cauliflower with Peas
Feeds 4.

In order of appearance:
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ tsp cumin, toasted and ground
¼ tsp asafoetida, grated1 tsp turmeric
¼ cup ginger, peeled and chopped
½ tsp cayenne4 tsp coriander, toasted and ground1 onion, thinly sliced
½ cup water1 large cauliflower, broken into small florets
1 ½ tsp salt
1/2lb sugar-snap peas, strings removed (frozen peas okay)
2 tsp green mango powder (ground amchoor)
1 tsp garam masala
basmati ric
emango or other sweet chutneys offset the curry’s spicy punch

Heat the vegetable oil till hot (I used grapeseed oil since it doesn’t smoke), then add the cumin and asafoetida. Cook, stirring continuously for 30 seconds. Add the tumeric, ginger, cayenne, coriander, and onion, and cook until the onions are translucent-—a few minutes.

Add the cauliflower florets and salt. Stir. Add the ½ cup water then cover and turn the heat down. Cook until the cauliflower is done, but not limp, 10 minutes or less. You want the cauliflower to retain some crunch. Add the peas, stir, and cook for one more minute. Stir in the green mango powder and taste for salt.Serve over basmati rice.

What actually happened:
After heating the oil, and adding the toasted, ground cumin, I had to wait for the asafoetida. The guest of honor, Bruce, was trying to grate the required ¼ teaspoon amount from a block of the turgid stuff. About the size of a cake of soap, and clearly a resin, a “mass” of asafoetida resists being separated from itself. Previously I had tried hacking off a small piece with a finely-serrated kitchen knife; as a result, though, the warming flavor wasn’t distributed well through the other ingredients, and the meal lacked some essential kick. I think grating is the way to go. (Ed. note: if you have a mortar and pestle, many recommend the mash-it-up method)

Fun facts: Apparently, asafeotida “tears” are the purest — and most pungent — form. The “mass” or “massa” I own has been mixed with whole wheat flour to tame the stinky odor (asafoetida contains the Latin word “foetid” with means ‘to stink’). It’s been an important spice in Iran, Afghanistan, and India for centuries: Jains and purist Brahmins also like it because it gives flavor to their otherwise bland vegetarian meals which, for religious reasons, cannot contain garlic and onions.

Anyway, the asafoetida delay meant that the cumin was in the oil for probably 2 minutes rather than the called-for 30 seconds. After we got it in and cooking, I quickly chopped the ginger and slicing the onions — I wasn’t quite ready for this stage — and then added the spices. Everything cooked like blazes for a few minutes, then I turned the heat off completely and made pomegranate martinis.

I figured that the spices and onions would be fine for a while, since they didn’t need to be crisp, and that the fancy soup pot I was using — a Le Creuset, my roommate’s — would retain some heat so that it wouldn’t take much to reignite the cooking. Stopping the dinner preparations at this point to make drinks helped me to slow down, and my guests to include me back into the conversation. We all got happily tipsy on the pomegranate martinis and there was no rush to barrel on into the main meal. A good, filling, spicy curry should not be eaten in a panic, like you have a train to catch.

After martinis and salad, I brought the onions and spices back up to temperature (as I predicted, they came up quickly) and added the cauliflower and salt, stirred, added the water, covered and waited. Then went in half a bag, more or less, of frozen peas, and as a last gesture, the green mango powder. The original recipe calls for fresh sugar snap peas — but frozen peas (without the pod) work just as well to bring contrasting color and texture to the meal (I confess, I’ve never made it with the fresh peas). I had cooked the rice while we were having martinis — 2 cups for 5 people — and I served the peas and cauliflower over the rice, in white porcelain bowls. Yum.

AS PUBLISHED IN The Paupered Chef