The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 3) Keep calm and eat curry

Mid-July in Manhattan, and I’m thinking that New York deserves its reputation as The City That Never Sleeps. Not because we’re all out partying — far from it. We’re lying there tossing and turning because we can’t regulate our air-conditioning units.

“High” puts you in Siberia; “Low” sends you down into the Tropics. There are no in-betweens, except for the brief period just after you’ve gotten out of bed to adjust the setting. But by then you’re awake again…

It has always surprised me that New Yorkers are willing to put up with such primitive cooling methods. It’s not like them to suffer silently. My theory is that they simply don’t know any better. As the world begins and ends in New York (isn’t Times Square supposed to be the center of the universe?), this must be the best of all possible air conditioning systems.

Regardless. The point is that I am finding summer a terrible trial now that I’ve repatriated — one that at times requires Olympic strength and endurance.

As summer wears on, I wear out. Not only do I never sleep but I never eat — or eat only minimally. My appetite dwindles at the thought of passing yet another uncomfortable night at the mercy of Simon-Aire products.

All of that changed, however, a few nights ago. Actually, the night had started normally enough: I had gone to bed and was freezing cold so couldn’t sleep. But just as I was lying there thinking about getting up to turn the air con down or else searching the closet for another blanket, I had a sudden, heartwarming thought: “I could kill for a curry!”

How did I go from cursing Dr. Cool, whose workers had installed a supposedly upgraded Simon-Aire unit in the bedroom at considerable cost, to a happy craving for curry? I can only surmise that my subconscious mind was trying to restore my spirits by reminding me of my curry-eating days in the two small islands where I’d lived as an expat, England and Japan. I felt calm again, and my appetite returned…

America — a nation that has deprived itself of a serious curry experience

When I first moved to New York, I was beyond thrilled to discover that the Indian actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey lived here, too. To my utter surprise (and delight) — I had always assumed she lived in London — she has been residing in an apartment on the Upper East Side for the past several decades. (She also has a farmhouse in the Hudson Valley.)

Surprised in a good way, yes — but also somewhat mystified. Why would Jaffrey choose to live in America for so long, given the sorry state of Indian cuisine in this part of the world?

I guess it has to do with husbands — she came to the city with her first husband, the Indian actor, Saeed Jaffrey, and then after their divorce, married an American.

Or perhaps she just likes a challenge? In Jaffrey’s very first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, written not long after her arrival on American soil, she says she is writing the book because

there is no place in New York or anywhere in America where top-quality Indian food could be found, except, of course, in private Indian homes.

That was nearly forty years ago, and I have to say, her efforts to improve the situation, beginning with that book, have yet to pay off. Manhattan now has a couple of Indian restaurant neighborhoods, and then there’s Jackson Heights in Queens — but in general curry hasn’t caught on in a big way with Americans. If we want to eat spicy food, we usually turn to Mexican or Thai, not Indian.

As Jaffrey herself put it in an interview with an American reporter last year:

America as a whole has not embraced Indian food like they have with Chinese, or with sushi. It’s beginning to change, but only in big cities. Something is needed, something real. I have waited for this revolution, but it hasn’t happened yet.

This is in stark contrast to England and Japan — both of which embraced the curry cause on first exposure and now behave as though they’d invented certain dishes. Indeed, chicken tikka is considered to be a national dish in the UK, while “curry rice” (pronounced karē raisu) rapidly achieved the status of a national dish in Japan.

Nostalgia: Going out for a curry in England

England, my England — where Madhur Jaffrey is a household name, and curry houses abound!

Britain got the hots for curry during the 19th century, when there was an enthusiasm for all things Indian. And I got the hots for the Brits’ late-20th-century version of curry when living in an English town as an expat. My friends and I would spice up our evenings by going out for curries. We always ordered a biriani, chicken tikka masala, and a couple of vegetable dishes (one was usually sag paneer, which remains a favorite to this day).

Our starters would be onion bhaji and papadums, and drinks would be pints of lager. If we had the space for dessert, it was usually chocolate ice cream — none of us ever acquired the taste for Indian desserts (dessert of course being an area where the British excel!).

But even more special were the times when friends invited me to their homes for meals they’d concocted using Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes. One memory that stands out for me is an occasion when my former husband, a Brit, and I joined four other couples for a friend’s 40th birthday party. The hostess, the birthday-boy’s wife, presented a dazzling array of Madhur Jaffrey dishes that looked like something out of a food magazine. I’ve been to much ritzier birthday parties before and since, but none have struck me as being as elegant as this one — partly because of the splendid display and partly because by then I knew how much chopping and dicing of garlic, ginger and onion, how much grinding of spices must have been involved. What a labor of love!

Yes, by then I’d begun experimenting with Indian cookery myself thanks to the influence of a very good friend, who’d given me the classic Madhur Jaffrey work, Indian Cookery (which had been a BBC series), along with all the spices I would need for making the recipes: nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamon, mustard seeds, coriander, cumin turmeric, cloves… To this day, I always keep an array of Indian spices in my pantry so that I can make my own garam masala at the drop of a hat. Now if only I could find some friends who would drop their hats! (Hey, I even have the old coffee grinder ready for grinding the spices, just as Jaffrey instructs.)

Nostalgia: Curry rice & curry lunches in Japan

Eventually, I moved away from England to another small island, Japan — where I was relieved to discover I would not need to give up my new-found passion for Indian food (though I would be foregoing my beloved basmati rice unless I smuggled it in at customs).

Thankfully, the Brits had gotten there about a hundred years before me and had introduced curry to the Japanese, with great success.

Because of “r” being pronounced like an “l” in the Japanese language, we foreigners couldn’t resist making many tasteless jokes about eating curried lice, but that didn’t stop us from having our fill of the tasty national dish, curry rice.

As in the UK, I found it a nice contrast to the traditional fare, which, though healthy, can be rather bland.

At this point, I’d like to loop back to Madhur Jaffrey and note that she disapproves of the word “curry” being used to describe India’s great cuisine — says it’s as degrading as the term “chop suey” was to Chinese cuisine. But I wonder if she might make an exception to the Japanese usage? Apparently, Indians themselves when speaking in English use “curry” to to distinguish stew-like dishes. And Japanese curry rice is the richest of stews, made from a “roux” that can be bought in a box if you do it yourself.

My first box of curry roux was a gift from a Japanese friend. It was accompanied by her recipe for enriching the stew with fresh shrimp and scallops. Oishii!

Still, the curry I crave most often from Japan isn’t curry rice at all, which I find on the heavy side. No, my deepest nostalgia is reserved for the set lunches in Tokyo’s Indian restaurants, which I used to partake in with office colleagues.

The (mostly Indian) chefs have tweaked the ingredients to appeal to the Japanese palate: little dishes of curry that are artistically arranged on a platter, accompanied by naan. freshly baked (fresh is very important to the Japanese) and a side of Japanese pickles: pickled onions, or rakkyōzuke (a tiny, whole, sweet onion); and pickled vegetables, or fukujinzuke.

(The addition of Japanese pickles, by the way, is genius! Try it — you’ll love it!)

All of this is capped by coffee or masala tea, both of which are so well executed they can fill in as desserts.

My takeaways (I wish!)

I fear there may not be many takeaways for my fellow Americans from Lesson #3. After all, the world’s leading authority on Indian cuisine has tried to convert us and failed.

Nevertheless I’ll suggest a few scenarios, with pointers on how you might attempt to introduce a curry-eating tradition into your circle:

1 — Summer is getting to you, so you suggest to a group of friends that you all go out for a curry. When they stare at you blankly, do a little head bobble, smile charmingly and say: “Why ever not?”

2 — Summer is getting to you, and you decide to build a shrine to Madhur Jaffrey in your home by buying as many of her books as you can — including her children’s book on the Indian elephant, Robi Dobi, and her memoir of her childhood, Climbing Mango Trees. You arrange them around a screen that is playing Shakespeare Wallah, a film she appeared in in the 1960s (directed by James Ivory and starring Felicity Kendal). Invite some friends over and when they ask you about the shrine, start talking about the joys of Indian cookery and see if you can make some converts. Perhaps offer to lend out a book or two. (I might start with her newest work, which emphasizes “quick and easy” methods — bless the 78-year-old Jaffrey, she’s indefatigable!) And you can always dip into the books yourself if the heat is making you sleepless. Jaffrey writes beautifully.

3 — Summer is getting to you, but you decide that when the heat breaks, you will start up a Curry Club with a few of your friends, encouraging everyone to contribute one Madhur Jaffrey dish or a Japanese curry made from roux. Even if most of them drop out and you end up cooking a dish for yourself, perhaps this exercise will satisfy your craving until winter. (I find I get these cravings roughly every six months, usually in summer and winter.)

* * *

Well, I’m off to see if I can resume my sweetly fragrant dreams of my expat culinary adventures — just hope it does the trick of distracting me from my ancient “aircon” (popular Japanese contraction) units!

In the meantime, let me know what you think of this lesson. Are you a curry lover? And if so, could you live in a nation that doesn’t share your craving? How would you put some spice into your life under such sorry circumstances? Do tell!

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, another in our “Expat Moments” series, by Anthony Windram.

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