Thursday, January 29, 2009

Paradise re-Found

You know how a smell or a taste can trigger a memory? I smell eucalyptus trees and I am instantly transported to Berkeley, California, circa 1976. I recently had a taste-memory flash that shot through years of foggy memories and landed me right back to 1983 (insert groovy, wavy dream-sequence shot here)...

I am 19, home from Boulder for the summer and working in a crappy restaurant as a waitress. Also working at said crappy restaurant is a fellow named Bob. He is a drifter/traveller/musician type. He works at a restaurant for a few months, makes enough money to travel to somewhere new, and heads back out - to Thailand, hitching though the US, to India and more. He has patches all over his army-surplus jacket and stickers on his guitar case from all the places he's been. Bob's a nice guy, but more importantly, Bob is about 5 years older than me and treats me as an equal. Bob is a no-strings-attached kinda guy but he's cool and has some interesting friends.

After a shift at the crappy restaurant, Bob asks if I want to go hang out with some friends of his. Silly question, of course I wanted to go! Bob's friends are even older then he is, maybe even 30. Two men and a woman living in a small basement suite somewhere in east Van. One of the guys is Indian from the West Indies and he's just back from a recent trip to visit his family in Trinidad (over 40% of Trinidad is Indo-Trinidadian). The suite is decorated with a driftwood coffee table, Indian cotton bedspreads tacked to the wall and remnants of incense sticks in wooden burners shaped like elephants. Joni Mitchell is on the stereo.

Bob has a pipe. Not the kind your grandpa smoked, if you catch my drift. Did I say that Bob was older? Anyway, out comes some of Bob's favourite brand of herbal comfort. Bob is also generous and the pipe gets passed around, once, twice, maybe even thrice. As the world gets dimmer and the paisley on the bedspread starts to blur, Bob's West Indian buddy decides to nip the munchies in the bud (pun intended) and starts cooking. Within minutes, the most amazing smells start wafting through the little apartment. A plate is handed to me - a smoosh of red, a few bits of green, a puddle of warm reddish gold on the sides and a warm chapatti to scoop up the yumminess. And it was yummy. Exquisite, in fact. Now it may have been the herbs talking but this red stuff was just about the best food I had EVER tasted. Seriously. What could I identify? Tomatoes, yep, that was the red. Sliced I think. I tasted chillies, that was the green but red chilli powder too. Onions, sliced thin. Was that cumin? Hmmm, I think so. Fried up into a delectable mess of melty goodness on the plate. The chapatti was pretty good too. I asked Bob's friend what we were eating. He shrugged and said, "Curry".

Fast forward a couple of years (insert sound effect of a zipper here): I am living in my own basement apartment. My first solo living arrangement and I'm liking it a lot. I start cooking dishes I had made at home, dishes I remember my mother making, a few she would never have cooked (there was one bad attempt at the 1980s ubiquitous deep fried zucchini, but the less said about that, the better). I try several times to recreate Bob's friend's "curry", to no avail. I try adding various "curry" powders, I try browning the onions. I try oil and I try butter. Something was always missing. And it wasn't the pipe. The recipe just couldn't be as simple as it seemed at the time - could it?

Many years went by and I forgot all about the red nectar of the gods, caught up in other culinary trifles and foodie distractions. Fast forward (zipper, sound again, but much longer this time) to 2009. Posted along Ponoth Road in our area of Kaloor are signs for "Real Food Court" on Azad Road. Apparently they do delivery - not something one expects to see in Cochin. We passed these signs many times before venturing over to Azad Road to check it out. The term "Food Court" would have me sprinting in the opposite direction back home, but after our time in SIngapore, where the best food in the city is offered up in "Food Courts", I was feeling a little more open-minded. Real Food is a spic-and-span mid-sized restaurant that serves up South Indian and Chinees (sic) food. 'Chinese' food is pretty popular here. In fact, it is the only kind of non-Indian cuisine that you will find in every part of India. Indian 'Chinese' food, like Canadian 'Chinese' food, bears little resemblance to the real deal but it certainly can still be tasty. Rob, Emma, the boys and I are all sitting down pondering the menu - what is "Chicken 65"? Or a "sharjah shake"? We pass on these mysteries and order up Chilly Gobi, Egg Roast, Tomato Fry (pronounced the British way, of course) and a pile of flaky, chewy-tender porotta. The food comes, I serve some up for the boys and put some on my plate. The porotta are great. A good porotta is a thing of majesty and I am working on my technique so I will be able to recreate these beauties when we return to Bowen. I tear off a piece of porotta and use it to scoop up some of the Tomato Fry and pop it in my mouth. I am instantly transported thousands of miles and 25 years into the past. Could it be? Have I found the Holy Grail? As the luscious redness flecked with green chillies and curry leaves slides down my throat I know it to be true. I have found the sublime, yet simple, "Curry". (fade to black)

Here is a pretty close version. The recipe doesn't make a lot (but could easily be doubled or tripled) since it is usually served with several other dishes, breads and rice.

Tomato Fry

1t mustard seeds

6-8 curry leaves

2 whole green chillies (make a slit from the mid point to the ends, or slice on the diagonal if you want a hotter dish)

2T coconut oil or ghee (but coconut adds a lot of flavour)

1 small onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2" ginger, peeled and minced

1t turmeric powder

1-2t chilli powder

1t cumin seeds

3 ripe roma tomatoes, cut in wedges

a bit of water

salt, to taste

Heat oil til quite hot, add mustard seeds, curry leaves, whole green chillies and cook over high heat until mustard seeds pop. Add the sliced onion, turn down the heat a bit and saute until translucent. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, chill powder and cumin and stir for a few minutes so the spices don't burn. Then add tomato wedges, turn the heat back up, and cook until they soften but don't completely lose their shape (you may add a bit of water, as necessary, to keep it from sticking but you want it fairly thick). The key to this recipe is fairly high heat, you don't want to stew or steam the tomatoes. Finish with salt, to taste. Can been eaten hot or, as is more common here (where people eat with their hands), warm-to-room-temperature.


MACS said...

Thanks for the birthday present recipe Laurel . I'm with you...tomato fry seals the memory for me.

Anonymous said...

You are most welcome. Happy Birthday Mary Ann!