Sunday, 12 August 2007

Currying favour in Peru

In 2001, I spent six months living and working on volunteer projects in central Peru. I lived in Huancayo, which lies at 3300m above sea level, and is about 7 hours east of Lima. It was more than a little isolated. To begin with, I stayed with a host family, who I really did not get along with. They didn't seem to have any real interest in hosting a foreign volunteer, and I often felt completely out of place. The eldest son, Jhimmy, was the worst, and he constantly teased me knowing that I couldn't respond. I got extremely unhappy and homesick, particularly when it came to food; Mama Gladys's cooking was... well, it wasn't inedible, it was just highly boring and greasy. Boiled chicken legs with fried rice, for instance, or mashed and unidentifiable vegetables. At this point in the expedition my language skills were minimal, and I felt I couldn't afford to be rude about the food, even if I was able too.

I badly needed some decent grub (which Peru is actually extremely good at) and a good bonding session with the family. Both were going to be a long way off, as I was soon to discover. One incident which really brought this home to me was the day that I tried to cook dinner. Nearly a month away from home, and the one thing I missed most, was curry. I love the stuff, and strangely enough, there is no equivalent in Peru. My darling Carl had obviously picked up on my distress, and had dutifully posted me 5 packets of curry powder round the globe. So, going on the general assumption that the way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs, I bravely mimed cooking actions and pointed to myself, and the family humoured me.

My friend Elise, a confident, highly attractive French-Canadian girl working on the volunteer project with me, had offered to come over to help with dinner. She was also intrigued to meet the family and see what I was making so much fuss about. The curry itself was a success, given our reliance on pre-packaged food. Trying to turn a dead, plucked chicken into headless, feetless, chicken fillets minus those grey wobbly bits in the middle was a unique experience, and I will never say another word against corporate monopolised convenience foods ever again. Still, between the two of us, we created quite a passable dinner.

The meal, as a social event, couldn’t have gone worse, in comparison. The family made generally appreciative sounding noises, but not towards me. They loved Elise. They asked her all the questions I was expecting them to ask me, and although her Spanish at that point was only slightly better than mine, they did not laugh at her, they were patient and made an effort to help her out when she got stuck. Jhimmy laughed and joked. They even asked her what I’d put in the curry. I felt awful. Elise chatted away as best she could, but admitted to me afterwards that she felt really embarrassed. I have never really felt so small, unattractive or useless in my life!

This story does end happily, in that I eventually got moved to a different family who were utterly wonderful and who I am still in touch with six years later. I made them a curry too, which probably was a lot more hassle than it was worth given my issues with butchering chicken, but they were far more enthusiastic!

'Curry' is a wonderful concept. Bung whatever you like in to it, cover it with a fantastic array of rich, aromatic spices and serve. Its so versatile, and as I discovered after being forcibly weaned off the packet powdered versions, not actually that difficult to create. The best bit is, it smells so good, and can take quite a while to perfect, and so the curry chef can look marvellously professional in the process.

Curry, obviously, originates in India, and according to urban legend, was designed to cover the taste of bad meat. Which does beg the question, what on earth were they trying to cover when they invented the phal? Whether this is true or not, curry and India have become inseparably linked. Even so, the vast array of curries from Asia never actually make it to Britain, and what we call Indian take away over here is probably unrecognisable over there. The other classic urban myth is that the Balti was invented in Birmingham. It might well have been; we used to live round the corner from the infamous Mr Spice take away, who sold, along with 'authentic' baltis and masalas (masala incidently, just means 'mix'), pizzas, chow mein, burgers and chips. All highly Indian, I'm sure. He was one step away from selling chip shop curry sauce! Curries have be anglocised to the extreme; whereas they are no longer 'authentic' or traditional in form, they are tailored to include recognisable ingredients you can easily buy at home in the UK. (Another reason why my Peruvian efforts required the use of packets - there is no way I could have translated the spice list into Spanish!)

How to make curry gravy:

6 large white onions
4cm (about 50g) fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic
1 litre water
1 tin chopped tomatoes
6 tbsp veg oil
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp tomato puree

Peel the onions, ginger and garlic, and chop up finely. Stick the garlic and ginger in a blender with about a quarter of the water and blend until smooth.
Put the onions, the ginger/garlic paste and the rest of the water in a pan. Simmer for about 40 mins.
After it has cooled, blend the whole thing until absolutely completely smooth.
At this point the mix can be frozen to use later, it lasts practically forever.
Next, add the oil, tomato puree, tumeric and chilli to a pan, and heat. When the oil is hot, add the chopped tomatoes and cook through.
Finally, add the onion mixture, and simmer for a further 20-30 minutes. Keep this in the fridge until you are ready to make the full curry. It can keep for quite a while, and you can even freeze it at this point as well, but the tumeric and chilli tend to lose their potency if you do.

This is the basis of all curries.

My favourite curry is a Makhan, or Makana. This is neither too mild and rich like a korma, or blow-your-head-off-Hot like some vindaloos, so it keeps everyone happy. And it is more interesting than your standard tikka or balti. It is also relatively simple, and bar raiding the 'herbs and spices' section of Sainsburys, doesn't require much of an effort to find the ingredients.

This will serve three hungry people, or the elusive "four servings" recommended by diet-conscious recipe authors.

50g butter
1/2 pint curry gravy (as above)
2 tbsp tomato puree (yep, more!)
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cummin
1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped
1 tbsp (yep, tablespoon) chopped coriander leaf - fresh is best but dried will work
3 tsp lemon juice
1/2 pint single cream
4 chicken breasts, cut into largish chunks

additional ingredients which go well: yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced, another white onion, chopped, and a large handful of raisins.

First, shallow fry the chicken until cooked through and slightly browned. If using, add the peppers and onions and saute until soft. Set to one side.

In the same frying pan, add the curry gravy, tomato puree, garam masala, cummin, chilli, coriander and lemon juice. Stir it all up.
Bring to simmer-point and cook through so the flavours combine, and gradual mix in the butter so it melts in to the spices.
Once all is blended and the butter has melted, mix in the cream and bubble up
Add the chicken, peppers and onion back to the pan, and stir in the raisins. Cook until all is heated through.

Serve with basmati rice, (or whatever the stodgy boiled rice is they so love in Peru)

That wasn't too difficult was it? Expect your guests to be overwhelmed with admiration at your Asian culinary prowess, unless of course, they prefer the company of your friend and can still see chicken feet sticking out of the bin in the kitchen. buena suerte

Sunday, 5 August 2007

All hail Kaldi, discoverer of the black drink of happiness.

Once upon a time, in ancient Ethiopia, Kaldi the goat herder sat, no doubt picking his nose or dreaming of that really beautiful ewe he saw in the market last week, or whatever 16th century goat herders usually did while sitting in a field full of goats.

This was no ordinary day, however. Today, the noise of frantic bleating drove Kaldi to get up from his comfy rock and check on his subjects. The goats were acting strangely; their already-mad yellow eyes were stretched wide and darting about uncomfortably. Some were dancing manically, to music no sober mortal could hear.. others were eating the ancient african equivalent of hot water bottles. The head Ram had just completed a phenomenally complex and ground breaking PhD thesis in a little over three hours, which sadly Kaldi didn't even notice in all the comotion.

The centre of the bedlam seemed to be coming from a small shrub, with dark waxy leaves and bright red berries. Some of the kids were skipping round it excitedly, then taking large bites, chewing the tasty-looking red cherries.

Instead of rounding up the goats and sending them home for the night, possibly with mugs of horlicks and security blankets, as all good goat herders should, Kaldi decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Grabbing a handful of cherries, he chewed them slowly, wincing at the intensely bitter flavour. The cherries had small green seeds in the centre. These were good. You couldn't chew on them, they were far too hard. Kaldi didn't want to swallow them either; even he knew that goats could digest things far better than humans could. But sucking on the hard little green things was very pleasant. Not too bitter, just, nice. Exciting even. Yes, he could take to these. In fact, he was goingtogoandtelleveryoneallaboutitrightnow! Yes! He'druntothevillagerightnow and hemightevendoalittledancejusttocelebrate! Woohoo! Ow. now his head hurt. Butitsstillgood! yusyusyus!

Kaldi abandoned his goats, with no thought to their welfare, and bounced energetically off to the village, where he confidently ran up to the local Imam.
"Hey!" he panted, "Igotthese aaaaaaamazing beans! They're brilliant! you can chewtheredbits and suckonthegreen bits and they make you wannadanceandsingandstuff!"

The Imam gave the manic fool a whithering look. Having mentally slowed down that sentence, he eventually patted Kaldi patronisingly on the head, and calmly told him he must be possessed by an evil spirit. The red cherries were obviously designed by the devil to tempt gullible souls, and therefore must be disposed of accordingly.

Kaldi ran home, fuming, humiliated and nursing the world's first caffeine come-down. The goats could not sympathise. The small, seldolm used walnut thing that rattled about behing their yellow eyes seemed to be aching. This was far too much for your average cloven lawnmower to comprehend.

The Imam, however, in an act of incredibly fortunate but righteous stupidity, threw the cherries on to the fire. They cracked and popped, and turned a deep, shiny brown colour. The resulting aroma was intoxicating, almost like luxurious incense. This couldn't possibly be the work of the devil. The beans must be divine, and the resulting drink a gift from God himself...

Ok, so this is an example of artistic license rather than historical integrety, but you get the general idea! And I much prefer this version of events.