Ink on my Apron: Our daily brown curry
This curry embodies simplicity and seems to exist in pure defiance of the theory that all Indian cooking must be intense and elaborate.
Every Indian household has their version of a watery brown meat curry. Fuss-free, wholesome and thrown together with little pomp and fanfare, it is this unassuming gravy that will tide families over various meals and make a reliable appearance at the dining table come rain or shine.
This curry embodies simplicity and seems to exist in pure defiance of the theory that all Indian cooking must be intense and elaborate. A handful of ingredients are tossed together, sautéed and topped with a generous cup or two of water before being sealed and left to do their thing in a pressure cooker.
Tamilians will refer to these generic brown curries as a kuzhambu while north Indians use the convenient umbrella term of “saalan”. The common binding factor is that so little preconceived thought goes into the making of the “brown curry” that very often these numerous inoffensive versions manage to get by without a name.
Photograph by Jehan Nizar
I am still in the process of recovering from a particularly persistent bout of the flu and have been caught in what seems like a vicious cycle. While the first few days saw me trying to bravely soldier through and combat this attack with basic soups – yellow lentils with cumin, peppers and carrots and clear broths brought together with pumpkin, courgette, and carrots – the sheer exhaustion of being sick eventually caught up with me and saw me turning to takeaway options. This, in combination with a course of antibiotics, did my stomach no favours and I have slowly gone back to cooking at home.
The thing about being sick is that one finds themselves craving the most basic “home food”. For some this translates to curd rice, others can think of nothing better than a bowl of kanji vellam (rice water) or the reassuring mashed yellow lentil and rice concoction that goes by the name of khichdi. After doing my fair share of all the above, I found myself craving something slightly more substantial and realised that my grandmother’s brown chicken curry would probably do the trick.
The interesting thing about this curry is that all my cousins, without exception, love this curry. Whenever we’re in Kannur and being subjected to the more-than-welcome grandmother feeding project, this is the one thing we’ll request every time. It can be mopped up with crisp, paper-thin dosas for breakfast or scooped up with her special treat –“square chapatis” smeared with ghee.
As with most inherited legacies in the kitchen, this curry has probably seen a lot of adaptations, mostly because it’s been passed down from the original matriarch – my grandmother – to her daughters. As a seasoned cook, my mother has never been one who can be pinned down to giving a recipe and precise measurements so when I was a student in the UK and had an insatiable longing for what I have now learned is called “kothambari” or coriander powder curry, my aunt was the one who proved to be a reliable recipe mule.
Kothambari curry also seems to get the universal vote of approval from non-family members who have had the pleasure of sampling it. My British flatmates couldn’t get enough of an impromptu dosa and curry breakfast that I treated them to one rainy Sunday morning and more than one colleague has looked in my direction approvingly when I’ve lifted the Tupperware lid to this dish in the office pantry.
My recent move to India has only just made me realise that I no longer need to rely on third-party narrations of recipes but can, instead, get them straight from the horse’s mouth. The larger part of conversations with my grandmother are usually taken up by her telling me to eat well and drink a glass of milk. She’s also possibly the only person in the world who thinks I am a poor eater and live in a constant state of malnutrition. On hearing that I had been sick, I was given an earful about how it’s not enough to focus so fully on work that one’s health takes a backseat and I tactically decided to shift her focus and ask for the one recipe which none of us have quite been able to replicate to the same degree of success that she has.
The finer nuances of recipe-taking in a language that one is not fully proficient in is something that has just struck me. My conversational Malayalam skills are the butt of everyone’s jokes and an affliction I think most third-culture kids can relate to. Having said that, I’m still proud of the fact that while I may not be able to follow the news in my mother tongue I can communicate decently enough to be more than just understood. It must, however, be noted that my grandmother is possibly one of the few people who fully understands my bastardised version of the language.
As she gives me efficient step-by-step instructions, I find myself wondering what exactly the Malayalam word “maallikke” means. I glean that it means to sauté and find I don’t have the vocabulary to ask whether I’m meant to do this till it becomes translucent or caramelised. I make a mental note to fact check with my mum. “A little less than two tablespoons of coriander,” my grandmother says with a firm assertiveness. Do you mean one-and-a-half or a one-and-a-quarter, and are we talking a heaped or level tablespoon I find myself wondering once again. Unable to find the words in Malayalam to voice these questions, I settle instead for taking the way most women in my family know best – by instinct.
Recipe for Cherumama’s Kothambari Chicken Curry
3 tablespoons coconut oil
2 medium red onions, finely sliced
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
3 green chillies, finely sliced
One medium tomato, finely diced
1 ½ tablespoon coriander powder
½ tsp chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
500 gm curry cut chicken
1 cup of water
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander for garnish
1. Heat the oil in a pressure cooker on a medium flame.
2. Sauté the onions for 8-9 minutes on a medium flame.
3. Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for 3-4 minutes till the raw smell disappears
4. Add the green chillies and sauté for 3 minutes
5. Add the tomatoes and sauté for 5-6 minutes.
6. Add the powders and sauté for 5 minutes.
7. Turn the heat up slightly and add the chicken. Sauté for 7-8 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.
8. Add the water, give a good stir and allow it to come to a boil. Seal with the pressure cooker lid and put on a medium flame for about 7-8 whistles.
9. Give a good stir and garnish with fresh coriander.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.