Several years ago the love of my life, Hiro, gave me an unexpected birthday present: A curry cookbook written in both Japanese and English. Until then I had never made Indian food — curry had just never occurred to me. He didn’t know me that well at the time but mine is the personality that when I do something, I devote myself to it and so I bought every single ingredient in the index from Asafoetida to Yogurt and went to work page by page, which created some friction in our relationship.
The stereotype is that Japanese are polite, measured, conservative. Not Osaka people. And Hiro is very Osaka. (link explains the differences in Japanese people)
I met Hiro when I traveled to Osaka to see Madonna many, many years ago. I didn’t know anyone in Osaka, so I met him through one of those online dating sites. We made a date to meet just after the concert, outside Osaka Stadium. Now, Hiro is not classically handsome, so anyone looking from without would have been surprised to hear my inner dialogue, but it was for me I was completely smitten the moment I laid eyes on him. He’s much shorter than I am, has a broad Japanese face, a chubby nose, and a genuine shy smile. He’d just come back from a long term study abroad program in Australia, so he had a very odd accent in English and a charming Osaka accent in Japanese (think of an American southern drawl). He was awkward, nervous, in love with life and trapped — he had to find a job soon. He left Australia because his father had passed away. That meant obligations to family and a change in his life’s direction. He was still grieving and in flux, and so I met him in the raw, so to speak. We bonded quickly. For half a year I took weekend shinkansen trips to Osaka to see him and we eventually became a couple. It was around that time he gave me the cookbook.
There is no one I’d rather share my time with. When he’s anywhere near I am happy.
Anyway, he gave me a curry cookbook, I used it, it opened a door to Indian food I will not close and he has complained every day since. :-)
The very first recipe I made was an Indian curry labeled ‘Vegetable Curry’. I knew nothing. The first instruction was that each vegetable has a different cooking time and will go into the pot according to how long it needs, which is very good advice. So pick your vegetables — daikon, pumpkin, turnip, carrot, peas, cauliflower, potato, for starters — and cut them into bite sized portions.
Next, you’re to put cumin seeds in hot oil until they pop. That was a mystery to me until I watched chefs do it in India. You see, Indian food is cooked in a karai, which is concave, like a wok. The oil pools at the bottom whereas with a frypan the oil spreads out. It’s a subtle difference, but important — you want the oil to be in a narrow area, somewhat pooled and this tool helps me when I don’t want to break out my karai or wok. Heat your fat, add your masala (bay leaf, cinnamon, clove, cardamon) and let it cook for about a minute then add the cumin until they pop or sizzle, then add the onions to cool the oil and prevent the spices from burning.
My mantra is food is different region to region. Onions are a great example. The recipe called for 1 onion, but Japanese onions are three times the size of Indian, which are also red and very pungent. Japanese onions are less pungent (even when making caramelized onions with 4 kilos of onions, not a tear).
When they’re very well browned and the oil comes out the book says to add the garlic/ginger paste but adding 1/4 cup water, reducing until the oil comes out, adding 1/4 cup water, reducing till the oil comes out, doing this five or six times is the method used in restaurants and will transform your dish. Once that is done add the ginger garlic and cook for about a minute string constantly and then add the tomatoes.
While the tomatoes are cooking add the turmeric, chili powder, and ground cumin and coriander. The general rule of thumb is 1:2 cumin to coriander, which in addition to adding flavor also thickens the gravy. When the oil comes out add a bit of water and then vegetables which take the longest to cook, here daikon and potatoes. Wait a few minutes then add. . . .
When the last of the vegetables are in the pot, turn the heat down, cover and cook until tender. Add the ground masala and additional coriander powered, mix and serve — it is delicious, good for you, quick to make.
First tier (you must use)
- 1 large brown, yellow, or red onion sliced thinly
- 1 – 2 carrots cut bite sized
- 1 – 2 cups daikon cut bite sized
- up to 1 cup diced pumpkin or winter squash
- 1 – 2 cups eggplant cut into bite sized pieces
- 2 – 3 large turnips cut into bite sized pieces
- 2 – 3 potatoes cut into bite sized pieces
- 1 small head of cauliflower cut into bite sized pieces
- up to one cup string beans (frozen or fresh)
- up to one cup green peas (frozen or fresh)
- 1 – 2 cans of tomatoes
- up to 1/4 cup flavorless oil or ghee (to cook the spices)
- 3 – 6 tablespoons of garlic/ginger paste (1:1 of each purred together)
- up to 2 and 1/2 cups water
- whole garam masala (whole spices used to flavor the oil at the beginning of cooking) 1 Indian bay leaf, 1 piece of Indian cinnamon, 3 -5 whole cloves, 3 – 5 whole green cardamon, 1 – 5 whole red chilies.
- 2 – 3 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 – 2 tablespoons turmeric powder
- 1 – 3 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 – 6 tablespoons ground coriander
- 1 – 3 tablespoons paprika or chili powder
- 1 – 2 tablespoons ground garam masala (used at the end of cooking)
- 2 – 4 teaspoons of salt to taste
tier three (optional)
- Asafoetida/Hing can replace the garlic/ginger paste
- You can add 1 piece mace, 1/2 star anise, 6-10 black pepper corns, 1/4 fenugreek seed to the whole garam masala at the beginning of cooking
- up to 1 tablespoon coriander powder (for the very end of cooking)
- Peel and cut the vegetables, prepare all of the spices, open the canned tomatoes, and place water on the counter.
- Put the oil in a pan (a wok or karai are preferable) on medium to high heat and put the whole garam masala in the oil. When the red chilies just start to blister add the whole cumin seeds and let pop, will take 15 seconds to a minute, then add all of the sliced onions and cook until well browned and you can see the oil.
- Next, add 1/4 cup of water and stir until the water evaporates. The onion mixture will be noticeably darker. Add another 1/4 cup of water and repeat always string the pan. Do this five or six times then when the last addition of water cooks out add the garlic and ginger paste and cook stirring constantly for one minute more.
- Add the canned tomatoes, the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and chili powders and cook until the oil once again comes out, or until very dry.
- Add 1/2 cup of water and the daikon. Stir well and cook for ten minutes on medium heat.
- Add the potatoes, carrots, pumpkin and cook ten more minutes.
- Add the turnips, eggplant, cauliflower. If the curry looks dry at this point add up to 1/2 cup of water to keep the curry liquid and cover for twenty minutes on medium low heat.
- Stir in the string beans and peas and cook five minutes more. Turn off the heat, uncover, stir in the ground garam masala and coriander then serve.