Happy New Year. I’ve been thinking about cooking with more spices lately. Even though I typically pack flavours into my dishes using all the ‘normal’ methods (lots of onions and celery, vegetarian stock cubes, herbs, chilies) I’ve not really cooked a lot with spices, especially from Asia. Having grown up in South Africa, a country whose cuisine is – in part – deeply rooted in Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian cooking, I’m of course familiar and comfortable with (eating) curries. But I don’t think I ever had a particularly differentiated understanding of the different kinds of curry (red, green, yellow, etc.) until I moved to Canada and properly encountered Thai cooking.
Thai restaurants are cheap and plentiful in Toronto, and it’s a very affordable lunch alternative to Middle Eastern or fast/junk food. Once I turned myself into a ‘committed’ vegetarian (one who makes sure he doesn’t eat anything based on meat/chicken stock or fish sauce), though, finding good Thai food suddenly became a whole lot more difficult as many dishes are based on fish stock ingredients. Recently, I discovered Jean’s Vegetarian Kitchen along the Danforth (a little further East than Greektown). It’s a fully vegetarian Thai restaurant that’s well worth visiting. While certainly not an incredibly comfortable place (the decor is pretty basic and it’s lit very brightly), the food is very tasty and there’s a lot of variety. The curries (red, green, yellow/Malaysian) are superb, as are many of the stir fries and soups. Jean’s also sells the mystery spice combination for its yellow curry, so I bought a jar ($5).
In South Africa, one of my favourite ‘indigenous’ dishes is bobotie. I say indigenous in inverted commas because the recipe is said to have originated in Indonesia (another Dutch colony) and introduced to South Africa in the 17th century. It’s a minced meat bake spiced with curry, covered by a thick blanket of a white egg custard. Served with vegetables, yellow rice and a sweet chutney, it’s tremendously tasty – real comfort food. Many years ago, I used to take pride in my home-made bobotie, but I’ve never attempted to make a vegetarian version of it. Now I think I’m ready to try, especially since there are so many great soy-based minced meat alternatives available. That’ll be a project for an upcoming weekend. (The BBC offers what appears to be a nut-based recipe for vegetarian bobotie. I think I’ll stick to fake meat instead.)
I also think that curry could be used meaningfully in all sorts of other dishes. For example, Alton Brown suggests to use cumin, coriander and grains of paradise in his recipe for lentil soup (it’s not vegetarian, but can easily be converted). That sounds to me only a small step away from just adding curry… and in fact, Google says there are a number of Ayurvedic recipes for lentil curry soup.
Curry (like so many other things: green tea, red wine, dark chocolate…) is also said to have medicinal properties (here and here). Although I know too little of Ayurveda to really comment, I’m willing to believe that what tastes good will also make me well. Let’s see if curry lentil soup works. There’s snow falling outside and I want snow day comfort food.