Saturday, September 22, 2012

Spicy Tidbits on Proper Curry, Hives and Frienship

Turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cayenne in colorful heaps 
Spices, aromas and the sensation of cool, pudding-like coconut flesh on my tongue come to mind thanks to Sezin Koehler posting a recipe for proper Sri Lankan curry on her blog. With each step of the recipe's instructions I was nodding my head, yes, yes, to all those tidbits of knowledge you need to make a dish succeed.

Some 20 years ago I spent just one month in India, yet the memories are vivid today. Traveling from Bombay via Goa to Bangalore, I fell in love with that part of the country. I was mesmerized by the unfamiliar landscape —nothing I recognized from TV or movies; the way people walked —slower and more sensual than Western Europeans, and how most everyone wiggled their heads in response to a question, as if not wanting to disappoint with a straightforward no.
After some practice I learned to push a dimple in the smallest piece of nan, so I as well could scope up sauce and rice, or pick a piece of chicken from khali trays without having sauce run the length of my arm into my armpit. I enjoyed the heat of the climate and of the seasoning of dishes and chai.

Spicier is fine, I used to say.

One fateful day in Goa, I went on an outing with Nelson, the son of my host and some of his friends. We drove for a long time along the coast. By the time we arrived at what wasn't much more than a shack on the beach, I was shocked to learn that the only available item on the menu was grilled shrimp. Since I suffered from low blood sugar and we were hours away from a store or other restaurant, I had to eat the non kosher food. Not long after, the skin on my face, arms, rump and legs rose, and started itching like crazy.

"God punishes immediately," I imagined my long dead father saying.

Braganza Mansion in Chandor, Goa
On the way back to town, Nelson, an M.D., stated that I, being a Westerner, had to be used to drinking. What did he imply?
"Our women would be too sensitive to the medication I'd like to give you."
That he meant I had to have experienced the buzz of alcohol before, became clear soon after we arrived at his girlfriend's parents' house, where I took the pills he fetched at a pharmacy.

High as a kite, incapable to sit up, I lay on a narrow bed, confined to a darkened bedroom, so different from the poster bed in the lofty room at my host's mansion where I was allowed to rest during siestas. Between hallucinations I worried, then again was relieved that my mother did not know I lay dying in a small Portuguese-Catholic town in India.

Needless to say I survived the allergic reaction as well as the remedy. However, from that time on spicy food has continued to give me hives. A hint of black pepper and the top of my cheekbones itch, cayenne does the same to my calves, paprika to my arm pits, and worse, eating a fresh tomato, raw or cooked makes my face resemble one. Eating strawberries turns my eyelids red and itchy. There's much more, I'll spare you the rest.

Still, I picked up spices and a copy of Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters, and back in Amsterdam, I learned how to toast and mix spices, make my own coconut water and ghee. When another friend from Goa came to Amsterdam, we took a job catering to a film production, and started an Indian catering company, Moghul Durbar just so Vivek would feel more at home. Over the years I've learned what it's like to be in a foreign place where nobody knows where you're coming from. Sharing recipes, cooking, and eating together is a great way to share who you are, allow others to get to know your culture. Food helps people to open up to each other. And sometimes you find out in the kitchen that you have more in common than you realized before.

If I say curry, who do you think of?

This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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