The Southern Curry

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up thinking of curry powder as a singular seasoning, not as the blend of herbs and spices it actually is. Even after I discovered that curries are spice blends, I was still unaware of the incredible number of varieties until my cousin Paige, who married into an Indian family, sent me Madhur Jeffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking and Ruta Kahate’s 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. Granted, I knew enough history to know that India is not so much a country as it is a sub-continent with an astounding number of peoples spread over one and a quarter million square miles, but still the intricacies of the cuisines left me reeling. Then there is curry powder itself, about which Jaffrey in her introduction on how to produce “that genuine flavor” says, “Let me start negatively by saying that what you don’t need is curry powder.” Curry, she says, is “a British oversimplification for what is universally regarded as a richly varied cuisine,” as degrading as “chop suey” for Chinese cooking. As no stranger to defeat, I knew that I was in way over my head.

I’ll keep working on the cuisine of Delhi, which is Jeffrey’s specialty, but while I’m still learning, I can always fall back on the one curry dish in the Southern repertoire, Country Captain, which is a chicken curry (there’s really no other way to describe it) from South Carolina. While Jeffery’s recipes will include precise measurements for seasoning mixtures (dare I call them curries?) with as many as eight or more herbs and spices, most recipes you’ll find for Country Captain simply call for “curry powder”, which is available in any supermarket. I used the McCormick blend with coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, celery seed, nutmeg, cloves, onion, red pepper and ginger, which I’m content to consider a reasonably complicated if not authentic amalgamation. The recipe I used is a riff off Winifred Green Cheney’s in her Southern Hospitality Cookbook, which she, being a woman of A Certain Station and Age, assures us is a direct replica of that served by Mrs. W.L. Bullard of Warm Springs, Georgia, who “often served her famous dish to the late Franklin D. Roosevelt”, but you can find a good recipe for Country Captain in any Junior League-style cookbook.

Shrimp and Eggplant Curry

As a young man, I walked into a health food store that was run by one of those New Age types whose moral superiority in the realm of nutrition–which she considered an extension of her deep-seated beliefs in The Great Mother and Her Bosom of Beneficence–was further exaggerated by just being an asshole herself. When I asked her where she kept the curry, she literally sniffed, tilted her nose towards the tie-dyed bedsheets covering the ceiling and said, “I’m sure you mean to make your own. If you’ll give me your recipe, I’ll show you where you can find the ingredients.”

So I fumbled in my pockets and mumbled something about leaving the recipe my friend Rupta had given me at home before beating a retreat and hitting the books only to discover that curry is indeed not a singular spice or seasoning, but a combination of any given number of ingredients with endless variations. Still, that experience cooled my already tenuous relationship with curries, and though I have read Madhur Jaffre’s pontifications on the subject, I’ve never reached the degree of sophistication some of my peers have by actually making my own blend. Granted, curry isn’t a spice mixture I use very often, either, but I really do love a pungent curried roast chicken, particularly cold with sour cream. Like most people, I find curry most useful for vegetables, particularly cauliflower and eggplant.

Peel and halve (or cut into thick slices, depending on the size) six small or two large eggplants, brush liberally with oil (I don’t recommend olive oil for this recipe, nor ghee or what passes for it in your world; if you’re picky about it–and God help you if you are–use peanut oil), dust with pepper and place in a very hot oven until browned and soft. (For this recipe you’ll need about three cups of cooked eggplant.) Peel about two pounds 26-30 count shrimp, one white onion and 2 small mild peppers. Heat oil in a heavy skillet, crush two cloves of garlic, add to oil with onions, peppers, and shrimp, sauté until shrimp are cooked, then add eggplant. Stir to mix thoroughly; you’ll have to add some liquid, about two cups. You can use water, but I use a weak stock (usually chicken). Season with two tablespoons curry powder infused with a teaspoon each thyme leaves and basil. Add cayenne to taste. Mix thoroughly and pour into an oven dish or deep–sided pan and bake in a medium (350) oven until firm. Seasoned rice is a great side.