My paternal grandmother was notorious for boiling vegetables for upwards of two hours, in water with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda “to keep the colour in”. This would produce vivid green broccoli which would disintegrate as soon as it was looked at. Similarly, my maternal grandmother’s speciality (you’ll notice my grandfathers didn’t cook at all – unless you count the time one proudly informed us he’d managed to cope while his wife was in hospital by opening a tin of rice pudding all by himself and then eating the contents cold) was cabbage boiled for many hours, tipped into a “calendar” (or, as the rest of the world called it, a “colander”), compressed into a cake with a saucer on top, and then served by the flabby yellowing slice.
With a heritage like that, it’s no wonder that the culinary fare I grew up with wasn’t terribly adventurous. Food as a child had practically nothing in the way of spices (though to be fair, my father would be sitting mopping his brow if there was too much pepper on his bolognaise), and I didn’t encounter curry until I went to university.
If one says “I’m not really used to curry”, almost immediately a chorus of voices will chime in telling you that you must start with a mild korma, and “work up”. It’s a bit like if you’re not a coffee drinker – people try and wean you on to it by way of really milky sweetened mochas. It took me nearly ten years to work out that I actually do like coffee – but only if there’s no milk or sugar. As for curry – I’m no great fan of tomatoes (it’s not that I actively dislike them, it’s just that I don’t see the point, and would rather eat something else if the opportunity is available), so lumps of meat boiled in a tomato sauce with a bit of powdered coconut is never going to appeal to me. However, tomato-free Thai curries were approved of and devoured enthusiastically.
So I got through university with a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards Indian curry, although my capsaicin tolerance increased significantly due to other culinary adventures. A few years after Tim and I married, we received a set of recipe books: an Italian recipe book, a Thai recipe book, and an Indian recipe book. I thanked the donor, began using the Italian and Thai book, and put the Indian book on the bookshelf and forgot all about it.
More years passed, and one rainy day I opened the Indian recipe book and flicked through it. I was astonished to learn that there’s a lot more to curry than simply lumps of meat boiled in tomato sauce with chillies. I purchased some ingredients. I did some culinary experimentation. I did more research (for those interested in the history of curry, I recommend reading Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors - a book which explains how each new invader of India brought a new ingredient and cookery style (thanks to Mrs S for the loan)). I discovered that I really like curry, and I really really like cooking it. The curries I like are primarily those originating from the North of India where the tastes tend more towards the sharp, hot and sour, so if I am cooking for friends (by habit I tend to cater for forty, invite half-a-dozen friends, and then freeze all the leftovers for microwaving on busy days. Yes, this is very sad, and I will probably find myself alphabetising my shoes next.) then the menu is distinctly skewed in my favour, with lots of sour lentils and not a korma in sight.
Mmmm. I really fancy a curry now.