It’s funny how a particular meal can whet your whole dining experience with passion and verve that spills over to your friends and family, so much so, that it becomes a focal point for high days and celebrations at the smallest excuse for them all to revisit the culinary explosion of flavors and mouthwatering wonders that such an experience in its peculiarly individual way can only be explained as a spiritual cleansing of the mind and body.
What am I raving about? Curry of course the Indian version of that famous multi faceted spicy jewel of Eastern culinary delight!
My memories of curry go back about 50 years to my early childhood in Kenya, East Africa. I was born the son of a master brewer who was also the son of a master brewer, if you have ever tasted White Cap pilsner lager or Tusker Lager you have tasted beer that was originally formulated by my grandfather who owned and built his own brewery in Nairobi.
My grandparents had a sprawling single story colonial home with a veranda circumferencing the entire home, overlooking the wild African bush on all four aspects where wild life of all famous African species could be seen from time to time both day and night on or around the shamba (garden). Being the owner of the manufacturing plant of the most popular human watering hole replenishment around, my grandparents would host a Sunday luncheon almost every weekend for friends and family at a table that seated no less than 24 people. Obviously the menu varied from week to week but the most popular of all meals at those festive occasions was my grandmothers homemade prawn curry (the recipe died with her I am afraid) a prawn curry like no other I have ever tasted. The preparations for such an event started early in the week, when my grandmother would leave with her African chauffeur to the Indian bazaar section of Nairobi often taking me along with her. As a boy I was always lured to go with her by the promise of a Dinky toy (a model cast metal car) at the end of the adventure, thus enabling her to have a small porter to carry the groceries required to make the feast for the coming weekend. We would go from store to store and merchant to merchant, at each one I would prance from one leg to the other while my grandmother would haggle the price of whatever was on the list to purchase with the store owners who were constantly reminded by her that the fellow down the street had much nicer produce at a better price and the bargaining continued. To this day I know those store keepers loved my grandmother and looked forward not only to her expenditures in the store but also the fun of negotiating with the all time mistress of negotiation.
Once the day’s purchases were done, my grandmother would take me to a coffee shop and allow me to choose my favorite bun and we would talk and laugh about the days experiences, then back to her home to start the preparations for the weekend feast.
Coconuts would be grated on a contraption that was in effect two boards locked together like a pair of scissors in the open stance and a razor sharp corrugated piece of steel at the end that the rounded inside of a fresh coconut would be grated against creating the grated delicious milky flavored flesh that would not only be used in the making of her curry but also to be served as a condiment on the dining table at the luncheon.
These activities continued throughout the week until the day of the big feast Sunday lunchtime.
As the day began the table was laid and the condiments were put out, these included lots of small serving dishes with coconut, banana slivers, chopped tomatoes, onions, mango, oranges, chopped hard boiled egg and a host of other delicacies as were in season at that particular time of the year.
Papadoms were fried and placed in large stacks at convenient intervals down the table for anyone to crunch up or nibble on while waiting for the starter course Samoosas.
I should say at this moment that guests and family would arrive around 11.00 AM and White Cap lager would be served in generous quantities along with gin and tonics and any other libation that anyone wished for prior to sitting down sharp at 1.00 or 2.00 or even 3.00 PM depending on how the libations would go.
When everyone sat down to dine my grandfather at one end and my grandmother at the other end of the table and guests and family on each side, Samoosas would be served by the house maids on huge platters and everyone would dig in to the impending culinary overload to follow.
I guess if you haven’t enjoyed a curry, you might wonder what a popadom is, well it can only be likened to a very thin flour and water wafer that is spiced with cardamom, or chili powder or other exotic spices that is deep fried or flame baked to a crisp light brown coloring and served as a side dish that can compliment any and all curry main courses and starters. As for Samoosas, they are spicy little envelopes stuffed with either hot meat curry sauce or vegetables depending on the particular varietal and they are deep fried or oven baked hot and crispy, served with a sweet plum sauce or a hot spicy coriander or mint sauce which has a dry but flavorsome tang to it.
These are spooned in teaspoons to the side of the plate and used generously or sparingly depending on ones palate.
During the meal beer was customarily the beverage of choice and poured into and drunk from large lager glasses and 22 oz bottles, in those days it was White Cap an award winning lager brewed in my Grandfather’s brewery.
After the starter course dishes were cleared, the main course which consisted of two huge tureens of aromatically scintillating prawn curry was brought in and placed in front of my grandmother and two platters of saffron rice large enough to feed an entire army were placed on the table at one end and the other. The guests would put their rice on their own dish and then the plate would be taken by the house maid to my grandmother who would ladle sumptuous prawn curry over the hollowed out center of the rice field on the plate and then it would be returned to its owner for condiments from the little bowls to be lavishly sprinkled over the entire dish and generous helpings of Chapatis and garlic Naan (a flat bread baked in a Tandoori clay oven) would be taken and eaten along with the curry. More beer and silence other than OOH!s and Ah!s as the very spicy dish was consumed by the ravenous partially intoxicated group of curry aficionados at the table.
All this was followed up by a desert that was sweet often treacle pudding with Birds custard (a sound family favorite) and strong dark Kenya coffee, picked and roasted by a family friend who owned a 40000 acre plantation in the higher country outside Nairobi who was a frequent visitor at the family table. Such were the days!
The sounds of laughter and the happiness that exuded in my grandparent’s home will live with me forever especially those curry feasts and the enjoyment that was infused into every participant both older and younger.
Moving on to today! I have long since left Africa and a long way away here in California I have been able to replicate after a fashion, my early experiences of childhood in Africa. I have tasted curry in almost every curry house in my area of Southern California and have discovered with my wife Sandy (who has become a master curry chef among a host of other incredible dishes over the years) a wonderful Tandoori (named after the clay oven) We book our table in advance and assemble the entire family 15/20 of us to celebrate all birthdays and any other special occasions, the ages range from 6 on the low end at the moment to 66 on the high end, everyone looks forward to these occasions with relish we all have our favorites from the creamy tomatoey chicken Tikka Masala to the fiery red hot lamb Vindaloo. We have Samoosas (a little different to the ones of my childhood but delicious just the same) lots of Taj Mahal lager and sodas for the kids everyone challenges to have a hotter spice than the other and the little kids work on graduating from mild to medium.
This is a special meal and event in our family and I can only say that a meal like a curry is a wonderful experience if one chooses to make it that way. Oh! By the way desert here is Khulfi (an ice cream made with pistachios and condensed milk) washed down with a nice cup of chai (black tea and cardamom with milk and sugar)
Life is good and I look forward to our next birthday celebration.