Sunday, February 07, 2010

Curry Favor

There is still some dispute about the origins of curry. It is widely considered to be of south India origin, with the word coming from Sanskrit. Certainly curries in their many forms are among the most widely popular cuisines. I was thinking about this while making some Vietnam-style curry (Cari ga Vietnam). There is plenty of time to think about such things while making curry, because curry-making invariably takes a long time to do right.
At the heart of curry is the combination of spices. India has garam masala, and all curries worthy of the name involve some proportions of cumin, ginger, coriander, peppers and turmeric. Different masalas use different kinds of pepper, but usually chilis of some kind. From the aroma, I tend to think curries all over the world start with the basic spice combination, however, and the Vietnam-style curry has lemon grass and perhaps more ginger and garlic than others. The kind I make is also more of a soup than curries from India.
Of course centuries ago, curries spread throughout India and Asia and on to Africa, largely through trade in the spices that make them so appealing. Now, fortunately, thse spices are readily available in most supermarkets. I was fortunate to have some chilis and other spices from Cambodia to help with this, and the Boise Co-Op, which has almost everything for making almost anything, had the nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) to make it more identifiably Vietnamese (although similar kinds of fish sauce are as common as ketchup in the Philippines, Thailand and throughout most of Southeast Asia.
So, here is a basic recipe for Vietnam-style chicken curry to serve six to eight people. It can be served with pho (noodles) or rice.
2 Tbsp. oil (I use half canola and half olive oil)
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces.
1 medium onion, cut into chunks
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 shallots, sliced thin
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root (peeled and sliced thin)
1 stalk lemon grass
4-6 Tbsp. curry powder
3 carrots, sliced
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 green or red bell pepper, sliced thin
2 bay leaves
2 kaffir lime leaves
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 (or more) chili, chopped fine. You may want to remove the seeds first, depending on how hot you like it and what kind of pepper you use.
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 chicken bullion cube
1 vegetable bullion cube
1 bunch cilantro (coriander)
Water to cover

Heat the oil in a large pot, adding chicken pieces and onions. Stir and cook until the onions are translucent. Remove and set aside.
In the pot. Stir in garlic, ginger, shallots, lemon grass and the curry powder, adding the bell pepper and carrots. Return the chicken and onion to the pot, add the fish sauce, pepper and bay and lime leaves and add water to cover. Add the potatoes, bring to a boil and add the coconut milk. Reduce heat to simmer about an hour.
Remove the chicken and strip and discard skin and bones. I then shred the chicken meat, but that’s optional. Return the chicken to the pot and simmer an additional half-hour.
I’d say it’s ok to have some ruou can about this time. That’s Vietnamese rice wine. Beer is also good, but I’d recommend Tiger (Singapore) or San Miguel (Philippines) over Vietnamese brands.
Serve over white rice with fresh chopped cilantro (coriander)
I am having mine with a side salad made of boiled shrimp, chopped red, green and yellow bell peppers, chopped onion and chopped cilantro, in a dressing of ginger, red pepper, vinegar and brown sugar, mirin and a dash of soy sauce, drizzled with fresh-squeezed lime juice.
I have not yet had all the regional possibilities of curry, but I’m eager to try. I can say that so far, it seems that Indian curries are more like stews or what Americans think of when having chili. These are fairly thick gravies, (with or without meat) and veggies, especially beans or other lentils. The curries of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam generally have more broth. Japanese curry is sweeter and much less spicy-hot than most.