Sounds every bit as authentic as some curry dishes I've eaten that were cooked by gen-U-ine ethnic Indian and Pakistani cooks.
Also sounds delicious!
I should get some of the lamb I have out of the freezer and make some curry. I quite like Patak's Rogan Josh curry sauce with lamb. Almost all their sauces and pastes are good IMHO.
I haven't tried their sauces. I'll have to do that.
When I was in high school, our next-door neighbors were Lebanese whose family had originally come up through Mexico, so their cooking was an interesting combination of Lebanese and Border Mexican. They introduced me to flatbread, Mediterranean olives, different cheeses, stuffed grape leaves, etc. My step-grandmother had already introduced me to the staples of Tex-Mex (tamales, enchiladas, etc.) and my mother could make chopped newspaper taste good (OK, I never saw her do that, but...she was a great improviser. Whatever was available and cheap, she made tasty.) We had, however, no Indian restaurants within 250 miles. I first tasted Indian food in Houston, but didn't get interested in making it (as opposed to going out somewhere) until much, much later...as in, the past few years, with the advent of my own source of lamb.
For lamb biryani (which is one of my all-time favorites) I use a spice mix from Shan, which I buy at my local Middle Eastern grocery store. They have several biryani mixes, I like both the Bombay one and the Pilau Biryani mix. I could send you a care package if you're interested.
I've got some little pamphlets called things like "Cooking the Punjabi Way" that a friend got for me from an Indian market in Chicago. They mostly approach things just as you describe. There aren't recipes, just templates, with lots of "add some of this OR this OR this" and "potatoes may be added" or "eggplant may be added or substituted."
That's reassuring...thanks for telling me. On a foodie site, I saw a recipe for (something whose name I can't recall) that totally intimidated me and left me convinced that I shouldn't even hint that I play around with curry.
2010-03-22 07:30 pm (UTC)
Hobbyists always make things more complicated
...since it's part of their fun. We run into the same thing with poultrykeeping:
"Can I sprout grains?" Sure, if you want to do the work, but it's unlikely to repay the effort.
"Can I mix my own feed?" Sure; just be sure to check your recipe against the recommendations of a poultry nutritionist, and calculate your feed cost including the time you're spending on it.
And so on, and so on.
Karen (who is trying a side-by-side comparison of brining an older tom turkey)
I work with quite a number of people from India (and did in my previous job as well), and since many of them bring home-cooked meals into work there are quite a few discussions about cooking. The one common thing seems to be, as you say, that they feel free to substitute freely. There are regional differences n spices and othe ingredients but I gather they are more to do with what is available in those regions, and they seem to be like my grandmother's generation in treating recipes as suggestions and being free to vary and experiment.
(One other common thing is that I can eat what they make, unlike what gets sold in 'Indian' restaurants in the UK. The restaurants use certain spices (I think that they are pepper variants) to which I react badly, whereas they apparently aren't used in the same way natively.)
What's the fun of cooking if you can't experiment? My dad taught me from a young age that cooking ought to be fun and approached with a sense of whimsy and adventure. It's not just people of your grandmother's generation who treat recipes as suggestions - I'm only 24. I like to follow the recipe the first time to see how it comes out before I play with it. Of course, I try to approach life in general with a sense of whimsy and adventure...
That's often my approach - try the recipe first, then change up. Of course, if I don't have some of the ingredients in hand, "change up" may come first. The now standing joke in our house is, "What did I make? Well, I _started_ with this recipe and ..." Followed by my DH rolling his eyes and making comments.
He has often come close to getting whacked with whatever utensil is in my hand for his (now longstanding) tradition of (a) complaining that I didn't follow the recipe the first time, so how can he know if he likes it, or (b) telling me, when I DID follow the recipe, that it was "boring" and asking how we could "make it better".
My sister and I learned to cook in "self-defence". Our mother could cook, but she preferred to do basic things (although her cheese scones were to die for!), so we taught ourselves the fancier cooking, aided and abetted by her mother who encouraged us to experiment (note: green food dye in chocolate cake looks ghastly, as though it's mouldy! Tastes fine, though, if you can get past how it looks). And we were allowed to do it as long as we cleaned up any mess and didn't waste food.
My attitude towards most things is "if all else fails, read the instructions". Unless there's nothing else around to read...
Yes, there are certainly younger people who do like to experiment with cooking. But so many these days don't even get the chance, like so many things it comes pre-packaged and many don't seen to realise what the original ingredients even look like (an actual quote from someone around your age: "How do they make brussels sprouts?" She honestly thought that they were shrunken cabbages or something, she'd only ever seen them in packets of frozen ones!).
From what my grandmother told me (she was born in 1904), however, when she was young varying recipes was the norm, because so many ingredients were seasonal or only in shops occasionally, and cookery books were generally handed down rather than bought (and some of the ingredients which had been common in the 1800s were more scarce or expensive: saffron is now the same price by weight as refined gold, where it used to be so common that everyone used it). And then there were the two wars when things were rationed so many foods weren't available at all.
A friend we dragged into the dismemberment of Mr. Muscle (it was her first such experience) has a mil who is horrified at the thought of meat-not-shrink-wrapped-at-supermarket. I think the mil prefers to believe that store meat is vat-grown to size and shape or something.
My mother, born in 1913, told me about the foods of her childhood--they had a cow and made their own butter (she churned it--a girl's chore), a big garden, etc. The calf was traded for another, neighbor's calf, so the kids weren't eating their former pet, but kids grew up knowing where meat came from--it had once mooed or cackled or bleated or been swimming in the river.
I ate the first tiny leaves of lettuce today while watering the garden. Is there anything as good as spring greens out of the garden??? We could just about nearly get a smallish salad out of the rows--they do need thinning. Some of the radishes will be pullable by the end of the week. The peas are reaching for their strings.
My mother prefers to not think about the origin of meat (she doesn't feel the same about vegetables), although we didn't have it prepackaged. We used the local butcher but she avoided seeing the rabbits and other carcasses (the same with fish, she would get it already in pieces). We lived near countryside (about 10 minutes walk and we were in woods and farmland) so we knew what the animals were, but we weren't close enough to any of the farmers do get to know the animals or get meat directly.
The biggest animal I've ever used 'whole' was a rabbit, and I was helping with that, but it's something I've wanted to learn. Similarly, I've never killed an animal (wasps don't count!) but it's something I'd like to learn (and learn to do properly) for personal satisfaction and "just in case" I ever need to do it.
Those first little leaves are delicious. Even new grass is, I used to sit in the garden and chew the new shoots (I don't recommend that these days in most places, there's too much pollution and nasty things sprayed on it). The young leaves of nettles and dandelions as well (nettles need to be boiled to remove the poison). (I was taught that a 'weed' is simply a plant growing in the wrong place -- a rose bush is a 'weed' if it's in the middle of a cornfield or a lawn! -- and many plants classified as such are actually nutritious and tasty.)
Yup, a "weed" is a plant out of place. Oats in the carrot patch; rose in the wheat. Etc.
Young grass (some types, not all--some have serrated edges even young) really does taste good. I used to nibble grass leaves too. Don't ever do it with Johnson grass, though, unless you know how to predict when it might have cyanide in it. It can kill horses and cattle...and we're smaller. I used to eat young hackberry leaves. Later they're dry, stiff, and rough, but new they are tender and delicious. Wild onions and ramps are great for cooking...I used to use ramps instead of buying green onions...but the key to safe use of wild/out of place plants is a) accurate plant identification and b) awareness of chemical exposure. Some plant families are nearly all safe (though some of their fruits aren't tasty) and others are nearly all toxic, with only some species safe. Looks are deceiving.
Old story, but worth repeating: a man decided to improve the disease resistance of his tomatoes by grafting tomatoes onto a nightshade (close relative.) He figured the rootstock would confer disease resistance--and it did. He had a fine crop of big, juicy, red tomatoes. Family ate them. Family got very, very sick and at least one died...of deadly nightshade poisoning. Never graft edible plants onto toxic plant rootstock (grafting onto rootstock that doesn't produce as good a fruit is fine, as long as the rootstock plant isn't toxic.)
I've heard you can make Red Velvet Cake green instead, but I haven't tried it yet. I love to make things interesting & unexpected colours, although sometimes when I offer people cookies which are greenish or reddish they look at them askance and I have to explain it's just food colouring, and it's fun to turn things different colours.
My granny's cobbler "recipe" is known in our family as Green Cobbler - because if you make it with blueberries, the crust tends to turn greenish from the juice. So, one time I was making a peach Green Cobbler, and my mom said, "Except it won't really be green, since you're using peaches". Naturally, while she wasn't looking I added a few drops of blue food colouring. Her face when I pulled it out of the oven was priceless - it helps that my mom is pretty gullible, though.
Hee! Yes, the experiment with the chocolate cake was after trying food dyes on other paler foods. What happened was that the cake actually looked fine from the outside, it was when it was cut that we saw the greenish-brown in the middle. (It probably didn't help that we'd made pink butter-cream to go in the middle between the halves!) I've never actually cooked with blueberries, they used to be rare in the UK (and often are still imported), we had a lot of blackberries and they were our staple dark fruit. They stain things interesting colours (more purple, usually, but some things stain brown).
And of course if other people are put off by the colour that means more for the rest of us *g*...
 Butter-cream: blend butter and sugar (UK "Icing Sugar", US confectionary sugar, although you can use any reasonably fine-crystal white sugar) until it is smooth. I completely unremember the quantities, if I ever knew them, it was "about that much butter and keep adding sugar until it feels right". Cheaper (at least when I was a kid) than real cream, and a lot easier to keep the ingredients (butter keeps for months, whereas cream has to be fresh).
I'm thinking cilantro and more lime juice in the next batch. We have an unexpected bounty of cilantro (last year's seeds that fell outside the raised beds have really taken off.) I may go all Mexican with the next lamb chunk, for that matter, though we do Mexican variations with beef and chicken so often...
Once you have a little confidence with the basics you'll probably find it interesting to make your curry powders and pastes from scratch from the original spices/herbs. But it's entirely optional as a step.
A couple of quick ways to make things taste nice and look good
1) Sprinkle chopped cilantro/coriander leaves on top (and or cumin seeds)
2) Cloves and/or raisins - the former in small amounts.
Also a little curried lamb (or chicken) is very very nice as the meat part of a salad. And it goes well with cold curried potatoes.
PS Tikka Marsala is, as I understand it, a mix developed in British curry houses not in India/Pakistan and it is now apparently becoming popular in India as a kind of import.
Authenticity is not, as you may have gathered, the guiding principle here. I should've gone out yesterday and picked some cilantro but...I was working on revisions. This is why I won't be doing my own spices, either.
(or so Im told, being totally incapable of eating anything with chili and cumin in it)
The local Indian population use it. Of course, you can go to town and make your own garam masala, but why bother when you have Pataks? or any other Indian-produced bottled variety :)
When I was younger we had an Indian family living next door - mum made curry from the ground up - first roast your spices ... the whole street knew when she was cooking :)
2010-03-23 01:13 am (UTC)
Re: Pataks is good ...
I watched a cooking show episode in which someone was extolling the virtues of grinding your own spices to a relative novice, who promptly barked knuckles on the nutmeg grater. I barked my knuckles often enough on an old-fashioned washboard; I am willing to sacrifice the perfection of freshly ground spices for the comfort of unbarked knuckles, especially as they already hurt from arthritis when I'm working at top speed. I use a cheese slicer that's practically foolproof, the piano-wire type, and a Mouli grater when I want it grated, but that's it.
Patak curry paste is good enough for this non-purist. (Though, if we get to a discussion of chili, I'm a south Texas purist about that. No beans, no mayonnaise, no sour cream, no mushrooms, no chives on top, and it's not hamburger or ordinary ground beef, it's chili grind or little thing strips. Served with beans on the side if you want 'em. Starving graduate students get a bye and can put beans in theirs to stretch the dish if they must. I did. Just didn't admit it back home.)
2010-03-23 02:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Pataks is good ...
Seeds of Change (organic) and Kitchens of India are also good tasting curry sources. We do a lot of saute meat/veggies, throw in chickpeas and/or boiled potato leftovers, cover with jar sauce. I know it's cheating, but hey, it's good. Kitchens of India reminds me more of authentic Indian, almost like my friend Sarita's cooking.
My mother used to have a favorite curry powder mix. Then we noticed that the flavor had changed drastically. Fortunately she still had one of the older jars on hand and, comparing the labels, saw that they had changed, and radically decreased the variety of ingredients. So she made a list from the older jar. From then on that was the template, with some experimentation from time to time, with the spice mixture ground up in the blender. It smelt and tasted heavenly, much better than anything that I have purchased premixed since.
I'm sure you're right. But I'm also sure that I'm not going to take the time to do that (and I hate the sound of the mixer.) I'm willing to butcher the lamb, pick the (easily grown) herbs, chop up the whole vegetables...but not grind the spices. At least not yet.
Ah curry. I'm afraid I'm hopelessly non-purist, but Sharwood's has been a staple in my kitchen since the late '60s. I'll throw it in anything. I've used the mild, but their Madras hot blend is the one I've settled on. Their tandoori belend as well. Theirs are powders, not pastes, so while they probably lose strength over time they keep next to forever.
Of course it helps that I never tasted curry until I was well on the way through college. But even considering that, I don't think curry is anything that Ma would have been able to ruin. Being cooked to death doesn't seem to ruin curry.
Oooh, that sounds delicious, I'll have to try it. We've been buying a lamb once a year from a local farmer for the past couple of years (already butchered as we don't have the space to try it ourselves) and still have quite a bit of this year's left.