Some notes on the grammar of the curry

Chicken_vindaloo To someone from the subcontinent, it is hard to believe that Indian restaurant owners in the United States are not malicious, reactionary, or in thrall to an obscure formal ideology. How else to explain what seems to be a concerted effort to trivialize a noble family of cuisines, both by reducing them all to a monotonous handful of sauces, and by violating the general structural principles that make these meals meaningful? It is well known that Indian restaurant owners are at the forefront of the right-wing movement to construct a homogenous dehistoricized South Asian identity[1], and the tragedy of Bangladeshis cooking bad Punjabi food is lost on no one. But, for the moment, let us forget that this iteration of Indian food is a particular, abstracted and displaced version of the cuisine of the Punjab and its surroundings, and that it ignores most of the other cuisines of the subcontinent. And let us forget that “Indian” food really should mean South Asian food.

But how to explain this fetishism of particular signifiers, this combinatorial generation of a menu from {chicken, lamb, shrimp} and some handful of sauces, these ungrammatical and unpoetic culinary utterances? How to explain the same sauce applied, with minor variations, to produce aborted versions of the same dish under many different names. What drives such promiscuous corruption of the understanding? Whence such systemic violence?

Even the most materialistic among us must realize that if we have no hope of seizing the means of production, we can still hope to educate. The following curry is as an example, not an essential exemplar or generative grammar. All of these principles are violated somewhere; still, they are a glimpse into the overlapping set of rules and resemblances that make up the cuisines of South Asia, whose grandeur and allusive depth is matched only by those of the French and of the Japanese.

Finely slice a kilogram of onions and deep fry them in very hot oil until dark brown (not black) and crisp. Set them aside and strain the oil…

Reheat about a quarter cup of this oil. Fry 6 tsp of ginger paste and 6 tsp of garlic paste[2] together for about twenty minutes. The frying might seem excessive, but is necessary. Keep moving them around as you fry, and if they start to stick, sprinkle in some hot water. Ginger and garlic is a common combination, and occupies a role both structural (in contributing to the body of the curry) and as a spice. Try adding some fried garlic paste to the beginning of a braise or stew. It’s a foreign form (so was the sonnet, once), but a profound one. You can also do the same with ginger paste, but less naively: its sweetness is dangerous and must be tamed.

Add 4 tsp of powdered coriander seed, 3 of turmeric, 3 of cumin and 2 of chilli powder. Then fry. Again, the length of frying will seem excessive. These spices are not to be used Raw, they are not to taste Raw, and you must fry, doggedly, until you have triumphed over the Raw. Move them around as you fry, making sure they don’t stick and burn. If they stick, add a little water and continue. The oil will separate and the sharp discordant smells of the spices will soften and integrate; if you don’t do this they’ll taste jagged and unpleasant. This could take over a half hour.

You must be wary of cumin. Leaving it uncooked or using it in excess are blatant attempts at decontextualization and are typical of New Age recipes for vegetable curries and Indian restaurant cooks in a hurry. Avoid this horror. Whole cumin seed is also sputtered in hot oil at the beginning of some curries. This cumin oil can permissibly be detached from context and used to enrich a salad or grilled meat. Don’t overdo it though, unless you’re trying to make a point.

In general, chillies generate more light than heat: they sharpen and push forward all the other flavors. Heat is not an end in itself. Sometimes this principle is deliberately violated; sometimes, more grievously, it is accidentally violated. Restaurants that offer to make a dish in various levels of spiciness should be shunned. Spice must be integrated and cannot be tweaked at the last moment; the attempt to do this sacrifices depth for fungibility. If you can stand the heat, eat some whole raw chillies on the side. They have a lot of flavor.

You are now ready to add the meat, but first note that several layers of flavor have already been incorporated. The charms of most sub-continental cuisines are expressed synchronically[3], rather than in a series of courses, and the cook must fold in flavors one after the other. The more theoretically minded see in this a sly reference to the construction of ancient cities, each with its predecessor buried underneath.

Meat (here, goat) ideally comes from older animals that have had time to roam. Younger animals don’t braise as well, and are often dry when cooked in a curry. Don’t use a cut that’s very lean or tender. Separately prepared stock is generally not used (this is a subject for another time) and this means that bones should be left attached for most curries. With this in mind, add 2 kg of goat meat (pieces) and an appropriate amount of salt. Fry for a few minutes.

Now add the brown onions, a little at a time, crumbling them as you do. The foundational role of onions in Indian cooking has been ignored by most commentators on essence, perhaps because the variety of uses are incomprehensible to someone trained in, say, the French tradition. There, chopped onions might be used to give body to a braise (as in mirepoix), and small whole onions might appear in the final product. But onions can often form the backbone of a curry, and it is not unusual for them to appear at several different points in the recipe, in several different forms[4]: ground, chopped, sliced, sliced and deep-fried…. Onions are often eaten on the side, and raw onion cuts through meat and thick curries with sharp redemptive brilliance.

Here, apart from adding flavor, the onions thicken the curry. In Indian cooking, you rarely thicken with flour, and thickening with egg yolks would be incoherent. Instead, you use onions, coriander seed, nuts and such. The use of plant based thickeners should not be taken as a sign of vegetarianism or a commitment to purity; the exaggeration of the extent of vegetarianism in India is characteristic of the Right and is to be avoided.

You may now add potatoes (small or pieces), having peeled and deep-fried them until just brown on the outside. Potatoes are to be understood primarily as a vegetable rather than as a starch: they are almost always eaten with another starch, and a meal of just potatoes and rice or flatbread is not to be considered odd. In Bengal (which, not unrelatedly, prides itself on its literary and artistic culture) potatoes are treated with genuine respect and revered almost as much as fish (Bengali potatoes and fish are to be seen as the ideal to which the English fish and chips is an early and earthly approximation). That potatoes (like those other noble members of Solanaceae – tomatoes and chillies) were not part of the cuisines of the subcontinent until quite recently should convince you both that we live in a favored time and that essence must reflect history.

Add just enough hot water to cover the meat, then cover tightly and cook on low until the meat is almost done. Uncover and, in preparation for the final steps, turn up the heat, gird your loins, and evaporate most of the remaining liquid. This is a clarifying step for the cook and represents a symbolic stepping back in preparation for final transcendence.

Add ¾ kg of yogurt, lightly beaten, and stir for a few minutes. In this curry, yogurt acts as a souring agent and also adds further body. The pivotal role of cattle in the history of the Indo-European peoples has led to much cosmology, symbolism and stories, and the prevalence in subcontinental cooking of milk, yogurt and fresh cheese is to be seen as an instance of this. However, the subcontinent does not really have aged cheeses (and shows a general lack of enthusiasm for fermentation when compared to East Asia or Europe). Braising meat or chicken in yogurt and onions is a classic and common technique and is explored in its many iterations and echoes throughout the cuisines of the subcontinent. Here, this technique is hinted at but not fully executed.

Cover and cook on low heat until done. Use this opportunity to finish the bottle of wine you no doubt opened when you began. If you’re feeling festive, three-quarter or hard-boil some eggs, shell them, and toss them into the curry.


[1] Vindaloo, from Portugese “Vinha d’alho”, referring to wine vinegar and garlic, is a splendid dish from a rich local cuisine. In many Indian restaurants in the United States, it has become the addition of potatoes to a spicier variant of the generic curry. This is based on a misidentification of the “aloo” in vindaloo with aloo (=potato) in Hindi. If I was feeling combative, I would draw a parallel with the Hindu Right’s insertion of Ram into every local narrative.

[2] Make these in a food processor: garlic or ginger and a little water.

[3] Of course there are exceptions – Bengali food is one.

[4] This is why the regulations of certain religious groups stipulate the strict avoidance of onions as a means to signify utter renunciation

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