It is almost impossible for the average person to prepare authentic Indian curry. That is, unless you were born into the culture. Or, if you grew up in India as did my American friend, Patricia.
On the other hand, you can learn to love to eat curry anywhere in the world at any stage in life. “Curry Love” began in our family when we moved to Singapore 30 years ago, in 1987. This is also where I met Patricia. It was our first overseas living experience. We left Denver, Colorado with two young children in tow for an out-of-country family adventure.
Patricia was born in a high ceilinged colonial bedroom in a remote village in central India. Two generations before, her grandfather built the hospital there. Infrastructure was limited because it was a tribal area, but the local people had medical care. A generation later, her father returned to India as a Village Extension Worker with a specialty in agriculture. His job was to bring clean water, air, and other forms of conservation [soil, sewage] to rural India. He moved his young family to a different village with a local population of 500. This is where Patricia and her siblings grew up.
From the age of five, each child in their family was sent to Woodstock, a boarding school, since 1854, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It took three days and three nights on a third class Indian train to get there. One carriage held all the students rounded up going to Woodstock, with many stops and re-hooking to different trains along the way.
Patricia graduated at eighteen and moved to the United States for the first time. At the University of Iowa she double majored in East Asian Languages and Literature [Japanese was her language] and Archeology. Four years later, she went back to earn a bachelor’s degree in Nursing [BSN]. She received her ESL degree in Singapore after moving there with her teaching husband and young family. When they returned to the U.S. after six years in Singapore, she worked as a neonatal ICU nurse for 25+ years. Now she teaches yoga, with a 500-hour teacher’s certification. Oh, and Patricia speaks fluent Hindi too.
During school holidays, back in the village, Patricia and her local friends entertained themselves creatively. After collecting dried dung patties for fuel, they cooked rice and curry in primitive little outdoor picnics. Later, in university years, her older sister began the tradition of weekly family curry night.
Many curry-themed parties were enjoyed in their Ulu Pandan apartment. Sometimes we dressed in traditional garb purchased in “Little India”. Little India is also where we ate “banana leaf” curry, with our hands. The heady smell of open containers of Indian spices intermingled with the overpoweringly sweet fragrance of jasmine flowers woven daily into necklaces is an enduring memory of this part of Singapore.
In May 2015, Patricia came to visit us in Paris. Of course she wanted to set aside a day to cook curry in between sight seeing, yoga-posing photo ops, and eating delicious French things.
Fresh ingredients were purchased at the Indian grocery in the 10th Arrondissement. Green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, green chili, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, onions, spinach, and okra. [Also the location for the best Indian restaurants in Paris.]
It takes many spices to cook proper curry. We accumulated black mustard seeds, yellow mustard seeds, sambar powder, garam masala, turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, dessicated coconut, dried curry leaves, cumin powder, fenegreek, red pepper flakes, sea salt and black pepper.
The menu was all vegetable curries, as those are our favorites, with fried pokora [an Indian fritter made with graham flour and veggies] and coriander chutney.
I busied myself taking photos of the beautiful array of ingredients and spices, in between some chopping prep work. When it was time to begin cooking, Patricia talked me through each step, one by one. Suddenly, I developed an uncontrollable urge to re-arrange my spice cabinet. Each spice purchased in a plastic bag from the grocer now needed its’ own tiny jar with homemade label taped on. Simultaneously, old spices on the shelf were carefully considered or weeded out. It was detail work I knew how to do.
Admittedly, I abandoned learning curry prep from the beginning. I simply could not focus on the endless micro-steps of ingredients and spices from start to finish. Apparently I can’t write them down coherently either. Rereading my notes, I see only a list of words. No amounts or explanations. I have not one clue how to cook any of the delicious dishes we enjoyed that day. The truth is, you have to feel it.
I wasn’t kidding when I said you had to be born into Indian cooking to do it justice.
From the opposite end of the food spectrum I learned to replicate a different Patricia recipe. In the Green family Singaporean kitchen you could always count on two things. One was about food and the other was about tropical living. Ever-present on the countertop was a dark cocoa chocolate sheet cake. Everyone was welcome to dig in, anytime. The second thing was the house gecko that lived under the refrigerator. He scurried out, usually under cover of darkness, to eat mosquitoes or ants, and certainly food crumbs off the floor. In the beginning he was small, perhaps two or three inches in body length. Over the next four years he grew substantially longer–and wider.
One day, Pat came home and noticed that someone had left the lid off the chocolate cake. Not a good idea in a tropical climate. On closer inspection, she saw the gecko, now a robust eight inch-er, floundering on his back in the thick, gooey, chocolate icing. Unable to re-right himself, wiggling wildly, he was going nowhere.
She picked up the cake pan and ran outside. Using a spatula, the gecko was flipped onto the grass in the apartment common area. Fearing fire ants would attack his sugary skin, she carried out pitchers of water and tried to rinse off the chocolate-y coating. Then left him to his fate.
Back in the kitchen, a bit of icing scraped off, the surface re-smoothed and the cake pan recovered. That evening her husband said, “What happened to the cake? The icing is so thin.” In the end she told him because, after all, the gecko was part of the family.
Miraculously, that chocoholic gecko found his way back to the five-star-under-the-refrigerator hotel. He remained part of the household until they left Singapore.
Deliciously fragrant Indian curry, darkly moist chocolate cake, and a loyal lizard are one part of my memories from Singapore. Unexpected and offbeat combinations of people, places and food have richly colored our overseas life. Many of my most vivid remembrances started with friendships forged in exotic locations. We laughed and we learned, as we leaned toward each other. Luckily, we still do. This one’s for you, Patricia.
PATTY GREEN-SOTOS’ COCOA CHOCOLATE CAKE
Butter a 9×13 inch cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Ingredients and Preparation:
- 1 ¾ C. flour
- 2 C. sugar
- ¾ C. cocoa [best quality cocoa recommended]
- 1 ½ t. baking soda
- 1 ½ t. baking powder
- 1 t. salt
- Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
- 2 eggs
- 1 C. milk
- ½ C. vegetable oil
- 2 t. vanilla extract
- Mix the wet ingredients into dry. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes.
- 1 C. boiling water
- Add this last, stirring just until combined. Do not over-mix.
Bake 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.
- ½ C. butter
- 2 C. powdered sugar
- 4 T. cocoa
- 3-4 T. milk or chocolate liqueur
- Beat with mixer until light and fluffy. Spread over cooled cake and cover.
Enjoy while musing over the story of a Singaporean cake-loving gecko. Or go to Patricia’s “Gekko Yoga” website in Madison, Wisconsin.