Winter is creeping through its third quarter. The snow, having eclipsed its fair allotment and most of the autumn before that, feels particularly unforgiving today. It’s been a punishing season on many counts, but I’m in a cozy rut of curry, the world’s most forgiving category of food.
Who doesn’t enjoy a curry? Curry is liquid sunshine. It’s a holiday in a bowl. Like fish and chips, Belgian waffles and falafel sandwiches, curry is a food I once associated with disposable utensils. But with a chunk of time and a decent Asian grocer or nearby LuLu Hypermarket, it’s not difficult to make a fine curry. The ones I turn out are authentic to nowhere: a little Thai in influence, a little Malaysian; a tropically ambiguous tangle of tang, sweetness, spice, citrus, fruit and cream (of coconut).
My first attempt was an adaptation of “a luxurious and deeply aromatic noodle dish” from Nigel Slater’s cookbook, Appetite. Providing a suggestive list of ingredients, Slater walks you through the process of making curry paste, an oily, fragrant, jade-flecked sludge of chilli peppers, garlic, lemongrass, turmeric, coriander leaves and seeds, and ginger (I recommend substituting galangal if you can find it).
Once this foundation is made, the rest is a cinch. Fry up the paste in a hot pan, whisk in coconut milk and stock, add fish sauce, lime juice and lime leaves and then build your curry however you like. My preference is for shrimp, crabmeat and fragrant Thai fish cakes made by pulsing codfish and seasonings into a paste and forming little patties. I throw together a basil, coriander and anchovy pesto, fluff it into jasmine rice and serve that in emerald mounds with the curry poured over. Garnish with fried shallots, mint leaves, chopped spring onions, bean sprouts and Thai chilli jam. I challenge anyone without a shellfish allergy to eat this and not feel better.
Why bother making curry paste from scratch? Well, for the same reason you might consider making anything from scratch: it’s fun, it’s rewarding and it’s infinitely superior to anything you’ll find on a shelf. It also never has to be the same way twice. Recipes with elbow room are the most interesting to me. I rely on enough products that are consistent without needing every home experiment to produce identical results.
Two of my current obsessions are Spanish goat cheeses – pata cabra, from Aragon, and vare, from Asturias. Both cheeses vary from batch to batch and both are made by true artisans in the most unaffected sense: all pata cabra is made by one man; vare is made by a couple who bought 25 goats 20 years ago to build a business they could leave for their children. Less preciously, I use Philadelphia Cream Cheese and La Vache Qui Rit, too. Sometimes I love knowing exactly what I’m getting.
People wax on about no two snowflakes being alike, but if you want to get really romantic, consider the shawarma. When I visit home in Abu Dhabi, shawarma happens almost immediately. On every visit, I order one of everything and taste them all. But it’s not always a level playing field. It depends on a number of factors I’m sure; who’s carving the chicken off the spit that day, the temperature of the fryer oil when the falafel slips in, or the quality of a particular side of beef. It’s never the same way twice – and that’s part of the appeal.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico