Spare A Thought For Food: Robbie’s Guide to a Pakistani Curry.
“Intrepid world-citizens of the future, take up your frying pans!”
The good thing about writing for an adventure magazine, is that adventures are wholly unique to the person undertaking them. As long as whatever it is you’ve experienced is enriching and at least fractionally out of your comfort zone, then by gum you’ve every right to herald yourself as your own personal Phileas Fogg! Just because something isn’t out of the ordinary doesn’t stop it being an adventure either. To paraphrase “Love Actually” (which I assure you is as embarrassing as it sounds,) adventure is actually all around. In fact, for me, one of the biggest adventures of all is just over the hall from you, underneath that pile of dishes you’ve been neglecting to do. Intrepid world-citizens of the future, take up your frying pans! It’s time for a little foray into what some would consider the student’s worst nightmare; home-cooking.
“…learn to bring the flavours and aromas of what was once a land beyond reach into the comfort of your own home…”
By some miraculous twist of fate, my family are well-acquainted with a great number of Indian and Pakistani restauranteurs. Some of my earliest memories are of the Taj Restaurant in Prestwick, the proprietor Bobby (Robinder; one of my Dad’s closest friends,) and the sheer onslaught of aromas, colours and flavours that its kitchen held. This relationship between my nearest and dearest and high-quality Eastern dining, has prompted in me an insatiable appetite (if you’ll pardon the pun) for pursuing authentic recipes that I can replicate at home, at little added expense. Think of it as a lazy man’s map of the world. Would you rather fly out and spend a week in Sri Lanka, or learn to bring the flavours and aromas of what was once a land beyond reach into the comfort of your own home, for the rest of your life? As a lazy man, I favour the latter option. But it’s not all lethargy. I challenge the average student reader to source ingredients for, plan, prepare, and then alter a traditional recipe without breaking a sweat. Cooking is bloody hard work, but like all good work, it has many positive outcomes. Spices are the home cook’s alchemical reagents; you’re a wizard, my friend, and the kitchen is your Potions Lab. In every shred of chopped ginger there lie gastric stabilisers. Cinnamon is a powerful anti-oxidant. As little as an eighth of a teaspoon of chilli powder is purported to have anti-carcinogenic qualities. So, even if you are planning a wee international expedition, it’ll serve you well to get familiar with your food. Armies march on their stomachs, and so should anybody who plans on trekking up a mountain any time soon.
Cooking is a rewarding social experience too. You don’t need to be an avid watcher of “Come Dine with Me” to know that if you can whip up something tasty, you’re going to win a lot of admiration from your friends. This is exactly what my mother did during her time as a Police Constable in the West End of Glasgow. This was the 1980’s, and in the 1980’s something pretty extraordinary happened for the foodies of the West End. Mr Ali, of the Shish Mahal restaurant (established in the 60’s by his father,) published his own personal recipes in a cookbook, and made it available to the people of Glasgow. It was at this point in time that my Mother began experimenting with Eastern cooking; at 3am, when her shift was over, she’d set to work with her spices and prepare what I’m pretty confident was a mouth-watering homage to the glorious cooking at the Shish Mahal. The restaurant itself has since moved, but to my knowledge it is still a family business, and is now the oldest Pakistani restaurant in Glasgow. Like Magellan before him, Mr Ali Aslam has brought spice into the lives of home cooks, and we are all the better for it. Similarly, my Mother (as is her way) has brought her own unique spin on the traditional into the lives of her co-workers, family and friends. This personal aspect is something I really love about cooking; no two dishes are ever the same, because different people have different methods and preferences. You needn’t look much farther than your own kitchen to find something that is truly personal to you and assemble a gastronomical character of your own.
So, without further ado, here is my own personal take on a traditional Pakistani Curry, based on a traditional recipe book, handed down to me by my mother. I’ve opted to use chicken thighs because I think they carry flavour best, but you can put whatever you want in this, including vegetables.
- Enough Meat/Veg for however many people you are serving. (approx 100 – 150 grams per person)
- An onion (sliced.)
- 3 Tomatoes (chopped finely- this helps them reduce faster.)
- 3 cloves of Garlic (crushed and chopped finely- this will help release flavour.)
- About a tablespoon of finely chopped, bruised ginger.
- About a tablespoon of butter, cut into smaller pieces.
- Cardamom Pods, two green and two black.
- Three Cloves.
- Salt to taste.
- Two teaspoons of ground cinnamon.
- One teaspoon of turmeric.
- Two teaspoons of ground cumin.
- Two teaspoons of ground coriander or a handful of fresh coriander leaves.
- One tablespoon of chilli powder (preferably Kashmiri, but any red chilli powder works. Except Cayenne. That is a BAD idea.)
- Two teaspoons of paprika (a personal addition – whilst not essential, it adds colour and depth of flavour.)
Note that these are just general guidelines, and part of the fun of this recipe is that you can adapt it however you wish. For example, my girlfriend found a tablespoon of chilli powder too much to bear (despite being a self-proclaimed hard man when it comes to spice.) It’s also worth remembering that certain things on this list, like Kashmiri chilli powder or black cardamom pods can be pretty tricky to find. If you’ve got the time, find a good independent supplier of these goods near you. There is a decent wee shop called Garden Fresh Exotics on Park Road, which is within walking distance from most places in the West End and is a bee-line from the Gibson Street entrance to Kelvingrove Park. Admittedly, these more outlandish ingredients are a little expensive, but considering the amount of spice you get versus how much you’d pay for the same amount in a supermarket, it’s a no-brainer. Also, there are ingredients you just won’t get in the supermarket in these shops, and this can help you make your mark on a recipe.
“Cook often, eat well, and if you’re ever looking for a new hobby, always spare a thought for food.”
Anyway, onto the prep. For this you will require:
- One big, sharp knife.
- A large saucepan with a close-fitting lid
- A spoon (preferably wooden)
- A chopping board
- A mug or bowl (optional, but recommended)
- Chop-up your onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and whatever meat/veg you’re using. I’d recommend doing your vegetables first so you can put them to one side and then to slicing meat on the same chopping board. This prevents cross-contamination, and also minimises washing (the lazy man strikes again.)
- After you’ve done this, grab a mug or bowl and mix all your spices save from the cardamom pods, cloves, garlic and ginger. You should end up with one pungent mixture of powders that you can just chuck into your saucepan when ready. Grind these together with your wooden spoon, as this will ensure that they are well-mixed and you get a nice coverage of flavour. Note that you should not do this if you’re planning on using any fresh spices or herbs, as the dry ones will drain the moisture out of them, and fresh spices are best added towards the end of cooking.
- Next, take your butter and melt it in the saucepan on a low to moderate heat. If this is taking a while, be patient; you don’t want to raise the temperature too high in case you burn the butter. Burnt butter is not tasty by any means, but melted butter helps to thicken the sauce and carries flavour better than oil does.
- Next, add your onions, cloves, garlic and ginger to the pan. Stir until the onions turn golden brown.
- After you’ve browned your onions, add your tomatoes and, if you’re using meat, add this too. If you’re preparing a vegetarian version of this curry, wait until your tomatoes become pulpy before adding the veg and spices.
- Once your tomatoes start to resemble a bit of a puree, add veg (if you’re using it.) If you’re going for a carnivorous variant, your meat should have cooked through slightly by this point. This is good.
- Add about a pint of water. This should be enough to fill the saucepan to a reasonably high quantity. Bring this to the boil, cover, then reduce to a simmer and allow to sit for twenty minutes or so.
- Once your curry has reduced, and resembles a kind of thick gravy, you are ready to serve! Rice works, but I prefer to serve mine with naan bread or roti.
Obviously, just because I’ve grown up around Indian and Pakistani cooking doesn’t make me the culinary ambassador for Scotland. What it does mean however, is that I have grown into a young man who is totally obsessed with food from the world over. While I might never achieve the same level of quality that a restaurant like the Shish Mahal or the Taj would take as par for the course, I think that’s part of the adventure home-cooking offers. Like a bodybuilder or a pianist, a good home cook never shies away from a challenge, and always seeks to better their previous attempt. Cook often, eat well, and if you’re ever looking for a new hobby, always spare a thought for food.