New Orleans loves traditions, especially food traditions. November is traditionally a time to talk turkey. So while discussing traditional turkey leftover recipes with fellow food fiend and writer/editor/publisher Kendall Collins Gensler, she mentioned her “tradition” of making day-after-Thanksgiving turkey curry – an interesting and excellent example of a twist on tradition. On mentioning it to family and friends, I discovered something else interesting – a lot of confusion about curry.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “I don’t like curry” or “I’m allergic to curry,” I’d have no need to curry favor from anyone. Nonetheless, when I ask a few questions, dig a bit deeper, I find that most people simply have a lack of understanding about curry and the differences between the spice blend and the cooking style.
Curry is an English word that may have been derived from the South Indian word kaikaari. That word, shrunken to kaari, meant vegetables cooked with spices and a splash of coconut milk. In India curry means gravy. Classic Indian curry often combines coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, cloves, ginger, red and black pepper, and more, in a variety of ways depending on the cook and the desired heat/flavor.
Let’s start with the single most important curry spice lesson: Throw away that jar of horrid bile-colored sawdust labeled “curry powder” that has been lurking in the back of the spice cabinet lo these past 20 years. Curry powder from the supermarket is not a single spice but a blend of spices such as the ones listed above. While that mix is similar to the blends that comprise an authentic Indian curry, the supermarket blend and even the name “curry powder” as we Americans know it is unknown in India and, in my opinion just tastes bad.
However, if you insist on using curry powder from the supermarket, then please do yourself and those who are being fed a favor and get a fresh jar. Better still, seek out an Asian market or gourmet grocery for fresher spices and blends with some authenticity, or step up to the big leagues and buy whole seeds, toast them in a hot pan to release their flavor, and grind them in a coffee grinder (purchased for the sole purpose of grinding spices).
That said, if you are one of those people who, with nose wrinkled and lip curled, snarls, “I don’t like curry,” you’ve likely been eating foods prepared with that vile powder, and frankly, you’re not entirely to blame. Know this: That is not, I repeat, not curry in the way it was truly meant to be eaten. That powder has unjustly put the fear of curry in many willing diners.
Second lesson: Not all curries are hot. In fact, there are more mild curry recipes than hot ones. The idea is to present a balance of the various spices and herbs, many of which have a delicate and sophisticated flavor. In Indian cooking, this contrast is demonstrated in the differences among spicy hot vindaloos, Madras curries and milder kormas.
New Orleans has its own Indian-food dining legacy that spans over 20 years. Each restaurant is distinct in style and region represented. The Keswani family is pretty much responsible for introducing New Orleans to Indian cuisine. Remember Keswani’s on the third floor of Uptown Square? The third-floor location was too out of the way to be successful, although the food was always superb. Ultimately, the Keswanis moved their restaurant to Metairie Road and renamed it Taj Mahal. Over the years, Taj Mahal has singlehandedly led the dining scene for Indian cuisine, known for a wide array of curries, mostly from the southern region of India. Now there is also an Uptown outpost called Nirvana. Even though it is all in the family, the food differs slightly but notably at the two restaurants.
Want to know more about Indian cuisine? Owner Anila Keswani is always ready to offer an authoritative lesson in curry cookery: “Curries can be spicy, but they don’t have to be and aren’t necessarily so,” she says. “Curry basically means ‘stew’ or ‘gravy,’ so any food cooked in a gravy or sauce is a curry – that’s what confuses people. They think curry is about a particular flavor, and that’s not right.” While Keswani’s menu is mostly food of southern India, the buffet is a reflection of the whole country and a great way to explore various flavors. What is fascinating about this restaurant and its connection to New Orleans is the way it incorporates indigenous vegetables to Indian cookery styles. On any given day, diners are likely to find familiar items such as mirliton, okra and other seasonal vegetables prepared in curries or dry sautéed with a deep and flavorful spice blend. Friday’s buffet at both restaurants always honors another New Orleans tradition – fish, in this case fish curry.
The flavors of Indian cuisine are not limited to Indian restaurants. Chefs Richard “Bingo” Starr of Marigny Brasserie and Robert Iacavone of Cuveé have previously cooked for Anila Keswani. Now in their own kitchens, their menus have an occasional nod to Indian cuisine, tempting us with something bold mixed with something new and always a bit of tradition – even in a curry.
CHICKEN BHUNA CURRY (Courtesy Anila Keswani)
4 ounces plain yogurt
1 ounce lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Pinch of turmeric powder
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
2 tablespoons corn oil
1/4 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely diced
1/4 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken
breasts or thighs
1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 medium tomato, cut into wedges
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into
4 button mushrooms, sliced in half
Pinch of turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 ounce cilantro, chopped
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Clean and wash chicken. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade and add the chicken. Marinate for 3 to 4 hours in the refrigerator.
In a heavy-bottomed wok or skillet, add the corn oil, ginger and garlic, cooking until lightly golden. On high heat, add chicken with marinade to the pan and then reduce the heat and cook until the yogurt has been absorbed. Add vegetables and dry spices and cook for 5 to 6 minutes or until vegetables are cooked through. Add tomatoes and cilantro. Cover pan and continue cooking for 2 to 3 minutes. Serve over hot basmati rice. Serves 4.