One Hundred Almond Curry
Oh hello, I was just dropping by to see if you're hungry. Has your stomach finally recovered from the masses of turkey and stuffing, the one can too many of wiggly cranberry sauce and that bottomless bowl of mashed potatoes? Have the blisters on your feet started to subside after forty-eight consecutive hours of standing on them in an attempt to once again out-do last year's feast? Good, I'm glad to hear it, because I'd like you come on a trip with me.
The thing is, I know how much you love this season with all its festiveness and good food, but I also know (though of course you would never admit it) that part of you is secretly dreading the return of all those reindeer-shaped cookies and punchbowls of eggnog and bricks of dry fruitcake that colonize the holiday landscape like subdividing bacteria at this time of year. So let's take break from all that for a little while, and while we're at it, why don't we leave everything behind - the damp, cold weather, the awkward office Christmas parties, and of course those ubiquitous red, green and gold garlands of which we've seen so many by now that we occasionally contemplate hanging ourselves with them just so they'll be declared a health hazard and no one will ever have to suffer their sparkly, gaudy presence again - and get out of here completely. Instead, I'll take you someplace sunny. Someplace warm and tropical. Someplace with beaches and palm trees. Someplace like...India.
You with me? Oh good. Don't forget to pack the sunscreen and some light reading material. And a few iodine tablets, and oh, some wide-spectrum antibiotics can't hurt either I suppose, but never mind that, I'll keep that stuff in my bag. What's that you say? If sun and beaches and palms are all we want, why don't we go someplace like Florida, or maybe Fiji? Oh, well actually because those things are not all we want. In fact, we're not really looking for beaches and palm trees at all, I just mentioned them to get you on board with me. Sorry about that. No, the real reason I've brought you along on this trip to India with me is to introduce you to some great food I've just discovered.
I know, I know, you already know an awful lot about Indian food - I realize that. You could even order saag paneer and chicken tikka masala in your sleep, right? And yes, smartypants, you also probably know all there is to know about pakoras and chapatis and mango pickle too, I get it! But our trip isn't about any of those things. We're going to India today to eat a type of cuisine as far removed from what your corner Indian place serves as a Big Mac is from those chopped meat patties that sailors in Hamburg used to eat. We're going to eat some Parsi cuisine.
What did you say? Did you ask what on earth Parsi cuisine is? No no, don't worry, there's no need to be ashamed. Not long ago I didn't know much about Parsi cuisine either, except that I found a delicious recipe for some Parsi pakoras a year or so ago that I advocated enthusiastically on this very site. In retrospect, it was a little delinquent on my part to do nothing to enlighten either of us on the details of Parsi cuisine apart from a feeble little link to Wikipedia, but never fear, I intend to remedy that situation at once.
You see, I just got my hands on a wonderful book that explains it all far better than Wikipedia ever could. Niloufer Ichaporia King is the person responsible for it, actually, and while I had never heard of her before, if you happen to be a regular at that venerable Berkeley institution Chez Panisse, you certainly might have, particularly if you've ever had the good fortune to get a seat for the annual Parsi New Year's dinner she cooks there (and if you haven't, and you live anywhere nearby, I would stop reading now and make a beeline for the phone - thankfully Parsi New Year is in March, so you might even stand a chance of not being laughed off the line).
Anyhow, Ms. King, in addition to being a cook, a culinary historian and an accomplished anthropologist, grew up in Bombay's Parsi community, and in this, her first book, has weaved a fascinating tale of her people, their history and cuisine. The modern-day Parsis, she tells us, are not a group defined by geography or language, but a close-knit cultural and religious community that can trace its roots back to the Persian Zoroastrians who migrated to the subcontinent from what is now Iran more than a thousand years ago. While Zoroastrianism itself is an ancient and fascinating religion worthy of more space than I can devote to it here, the truly remarkable thing about the Parsis is the way their cuisine has survived intact for so long, and continues to display many reminders of its Persian heritage. The Parsis love sweet and sour flavors, for example, and like the Persians add fruits like apricots, pomegranates and dates to many of their dishes, particularly those containing meat. They also love rich foods, and cream, nuts and eggs make frequent and much-anticipated appearances (in fact, the Parsis are so crazy about eggs that apparently the rest of India jokes that Parsi cuisine is anything with an egg on top). They are, however, as much Indian as they are Persian, which their complex spice mixes, penchant for palate-searing chilies and wide repertoire of pungent chutneys and pickles attest to.
But the main reason you should be interested in Parsi cuisine is not because it's so fascinating or so historical, but because it's so delicious. In the four weeks or so that I've had this book on my shelf I've made not one, not two, but seven spectacular dishes from it, all completely different from any Indian food I've made or eaten before but all good enough that I would get on a plane and fly a very long distance to taste more like them. The deviled eggs, with their touch of honey and crunch of green chilies were inhaled in five minutes flat, while the buttery cardamom cake, half of which I foolishly sent home with some guests, had me sneaking quietly out of bed the next morning just so I could claim the last piece for breakfast. The best dish, however, was this long-simmered chicken curry lyrically named 'one hundred almond curry' that was so good it plunged the future of our marriage into doubt when one of us (I'm not naming names, but it wasn't me!) took the liberty of mopping up ALL the leftover sauce that remained in the pot after I had dished out second helpings, though in light of the cardamom cake affair I guess I can't be too mad. While I could easily go on for hours about the masterful balance of spices, the genius of tempering the almonds' richness with tamarind, and the mystery of how a curry enriched with coconut could manage to taste creamier than one made with cream itself, it's all a bit futile, really, since this is one of those dishes that needs to be tasted to be understood, and I can assure you that once you do you'll care far less about what's in it than where your next plateful is coming from.
So what do you say? I can't promise it will come anywhere close to the beaches of Florida or Fiji, but a quick trip to India - leaving at dinnertime, maybe? - should make all that fruitcake-nibbling and office-party schmoozing just a little bit easier to endure. And who knows, you might even come back with a tan.
One Hundred Almond Curry
I'll let you in on a little secret. I was never very happy with the Indian food I produced at home until I invested in a piece of kitchen equipment that made all the difference. It's called a wet-dry grinder, and unlike the typical Western-kitchen alternatives of blender, food processor and coffee grinder, these little marvels are specifically designed to tackle the most difficult of Indian cooking tasks, namely turning mixtures of rock-hard spices and stringy vegetal matter into smooth-as-silk pastes. The Porsches of the wet-dry grinder world are made by Sumeet, and one of these powerful beasts will be taking up residence on my counter just as soon as I've saved up enough money to buy one. At the moment, though, I'm relying on a very reasonable (and much cheaper) alternative - the Revel Wet n' Dry Grinder (US - UK), which looks like a coffee grinder but can handle liquids as well in its detachable bowl. You have to be careful, though, as its ferociously powerful motor can easily burn out; short (1-2 second) pulses are really all it can handle. Oh, and about the curry: feel free to make it with shrimp instead of chicken, in which case just add some peeled raw shrimp to the finished sauce and simmer until they turn pink, or you can easily go vegetarian by adding 2 halved hard-boiled eggs per person just before serving. Also, you'll find that like most curries, this one just keeps increasing in flavor as its sits, so do your best to have leftovers!
Source: adapted slightly from My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King
For the masala paste
10 dried bird's eye (red) chilies
4 teaspoons coriander seeds
3 teaspoons white poppy seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
8 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
10 black peppercorns
2 (2-inch/5cm long) sticks cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
101 (about 3/4 cup/100g) unblanched almonds (Parsis consider round numbers to be bad luck, so they throw in an extra almond)
8 cloves garlic, peeled
1 (3-inch/7.5cm long) piece peeled fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup (60-120ml) water
For the chicken
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2-3 lbs (1-1.5 kg) skinless bone-in chicken thighs (I usually figure 2 thighs per person)
4 cups (1ltr) water
3 cups (750ml) frozen or canned coconut milk (for canned I prefer Chaokoh brand)
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, plus more to taste
2-3 tablespoons prepared tamarind concentrate (available at Indian and Asian stores)
2-3 tablespoons jaggery or brown sugar
cilantro/fresh coriander, chopped, for garnish (optional)
toasted sliced almonds, for garnish (optional)
For the masala, in a heavy skillet, toast the chiles, coriander, poppy seeds and cumin over medium heat until the seeds turn brown and everything smells toasted. If you have an Indian-style wet-dry grinder (see above) grind all the masala ingredients to a paste in it. If you don't, start by grinding the toasted spices along with the cloves, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon and turmeric into a fine powder in a coffee grinder (it's best if it's dedicated to this purpose, since your coffee will taste like curry otherwise!). Combine this powder with the almonds, garlic and ginger in a food processor. Pulse until the almonds are finely ground. Add the water, starting with the smaller amount and adding only as much as necessary, and process the mixture to as smooth a paste as possible.
For the chicken, heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté them gently, stirring occasionally, until they are golden brown and highly fragrant, about 30 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and add the masala paste, stirring for a few minutes until the aroma rises. Watch it carefully as it can scorch easily on the bottom. Add the chicken thighs, water, coconut milk and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring this mixture to a boil, reduce the heat slightly, and let it cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes, or until the chicken is fork-tender and has started to pull away from the bone. Remove the chicken to a plate with a slotted spoon and increase the heat to medium-high. Boil the sauce, if needed, until it thickens to the consistency of heavy cream. When it's as thick as you prefer, stir in the tamarind and jaggery to taste (it should be just slightly sweet-sour), adjust the salt, and return the chicken to the pot. Serve hot, garnished with chopped cilantro and toasted sliced almonds, and accompanied by rice or naan. Dal and a green vegetable dish also make wonderful accompaniments.