In a bare, uncharacteristic room at the British Council in Mumbai, sitting on the last row of a wobbly polypropylene chair, a glass of cheap Indian wine in my hand, and nibbling on catered Asian hors d’oeuvres, I listened to the aloof yet captivating, ravishing and brainy food historian and author Monisha Bharadwaj. She spoke about Britain’s favourite dish — the curry. And in that spartan room, which reminded me of a public school classroom in a London suburb, like any normal student sitting on the last row, I let my mind drift and wander. But this time, into ‘my’ world of curries.
According to me, coconut is an essential ingredient. To me, all Indian curries, whose base is not coconut, should be classified as a gravy, salan, rassa, korma, sambhar, or kadhi. For it to be baptized as a curry, it must have coconut, and has to be eaten with rice. No one agrees with me, but I stick to my guns on this one.
In my grandmother’s Pathare Prabhu household, we made some killer curries. My favourite was the green prawn curry or watnacha kalwan. The curry is delicate and fragrant, made from just the juice of half a desiccated coconut mixed in warm water. The other half is used to grind chutney made with fresh coriander, green chillies, garlic and turmeric. Then, it is cooked with tender medium-sized prawns. The sapor of gentle coriander, chilli and garlic, made even more luscious with silky coconut milk, turns it one of the most fragrant prawn curries I’ve ever eaten.
Another one, this time one of my aunt’s curries, is ananasache sambare or pineapple curry. It is sweet and spicy, combined with the tropical flavours of pineapple and coconut, onion, green chillies, coriander, and turmeric, and cooked with a generous dollop of ghee. This curry with white rice takes you straight from Mumbai to the Polynesian islands.
For any fish-eating Mumbaikar, the spicy Manglorean fish curry is comforting and familiar, thanks to the many old Manglorean watering holes turned seafood restaurants; Mahesh Lunch Home, Trishna (Kala Ghoda), Apoorva (Fort), Ankur (Fort), Bharat Excellensea (Fort), to name a few. Their gassi, made in prawn or red fish curry, or kori roti, uses coconut as its primary base. The curry, ranging from a palette of brown to red is thick and robust, and often a combustible version of milder curries. With an appam or a neer dosa, you can’t beat the coconut high.
Though most often served chilled, in this oppressive heat, or at least at room temperature, the humble Konkani sol kadi should also be categorised as a curry. I know we just drink it up like a digestive but this thin light, kokum flavoured milk made with coconut, just gently tempered with chilli, and garnished with coriander, goes well as a porridge with rice and dry masala potatoes. At least I think so.
I can go on talking about the Indian coconut curries, the flavours of which change subtly every few kilometers on our 7,500km long coastline. With every dish, the proportions of the masalas, the choice of souring agents, and the kind of fish spurns unlimited recipes and tastes of the same old coconut curry. Whether you call it meen Alleppey, Nadan kozhi, xacuti, kuzhambu, or a moilee, for me, if it has coconut, it’s a curry.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayaka