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My Life in Curry

by Russell Brown

My first curry was a traditional New Zealand curry: one with sausages in it. Although it's true that for three quarters of the 20th century, New Zealand's national practice was to overcook meat and boil into submission some of the world's finest produce, we were not entirely innocent of the spices of the Raj.

My copy of the New Zealand Women's Institutes Cookery Book, 1936 (to which I will return in detail in a future post) lists an undefined curry powder as an ingredient in several dishes and even offers in the "handy hints" on page 195 that "any sour fruit in season improves a curry."

But while a longtime ethnic Chinese population has meant we've had versions of  the Chinese restaurant since the 19th century, it actually wasn't easy to go out and buy a proper Indian curry until as late as the early 1980s. Anyone who knows more than that is very welcome to comment below. (I'm also interested in when it became easy to buy whole spices.)

The first "real" curry I ever ate was at a Thai or Malaysian place, on the corner of Colombo and Peterborough Streets in Christchurch. It was bought for me by Bruce and Adele King, the memorably bohemian American parents of my first proper girlfriend, Nicole. They prompted me to try a little sambal with it, which generated what seemed seemed like an oral inferno.  (Bruce and Adele also introduced me to wasabi, which Bruce had excitedly procured on a visit to Auckland.)

I must still have been a cautious curry-eater by the time I landed in Auckland in 1983, but I was soon schooled up by a group of slightly older acquaintances associated with a gathering called the Monday Night Problem Drinkers Club. I recall the late Ian Morris telling me that I was not to order a mild curry. At his insistence, I went for a medium, and suffered a bit through it.

But clearly, I evolved. Within a year or two, my usual late-lunch-before-a-Friday-night was a beef curry from the food hall that used to open onto Vulcan Lane. It was served by a tall, kind Fijian woman who was generous with her portions and laid on some amazing  chilli relishes. I don't know exactly what the style was, but I have very, very fond memories of those afternoons, where I would sit alone and savour my dish. I generally didn't bother with dinner on Fridays.

Thus was my course set. My first meal on foreign soil was a fish curry, while I talked to an old man in a Singapore hawker centre. The first dish I had in my new home, London, was a beef vindaloo, the day I arrived.

Later on in London, we'd trip up to the famous South Indian restaurants in Euston. In think it was the Diwana Bhel Poori House we usually ate at: dramatic-looking lacy dosa and spicy vegetables, which would, forgive me, find their way out of the digestive system fairly swiftly in the morning.

Before that, the India Club in The Strand, a customary spot for OE New Zealnders, with its formica tables and green chilli baji. After that, the curry style of Glasgow, which turned out to be quite different from the Bangladeshi style of London curry houses -- a menu full of thick, creamy sauces, the fried Mars Bars of subcontinent cusine.

I also have fond memories of the Guy Fawkes night we took magic mushrooms and got to to Clapham Common too late for the display and wound up at a nearby curry house. My friend Andrew, a burly roadie, ordered the lamb phal. "It is seven times vindaloo," intoned the waiter. Yes, that's what I want, Andrew insisted. The kitchen staff came out to see who had ordered this thing.

I meandered through a pleasant, aromatic tikka dish and thought I should at least have a mouthful of the infamous dish. So I did, and I couldn't taste anything else for about 15 minutes. It was unbelievable, especially on magic mushrooms.

By the time we left, Andrew was swaying and professing to be "high", even though he had not had any magic mushrooms. By about 4am, according to his girlfriend, he was in the toilet squealing "even my pee hurts!" It may have occured to him that the night before a European tour with Jethro Tull was not the best time for this particular culinary adventure.

But really. If you live in London for any length of time, it's incumbent on you to have, and to defend to the death, a local curry house. Ours was The Golden Curry on Clapham High Street. We'd often go there on Sundays, sometimes after dancing all Saturday night, and I would always have the chicken dhansak, which came with a delicious hot, sweet and sour gravy. We got to know them so well we were literally on their Christmas card list.

The Golden Curry batted on for many years afterwards, but its website has disappeared and I fear the restaurant has too. Could someone check for me?

These days, the Satya chain is my go-to for a sit-down meal and I'm fond of the dry, fiery Hyderbadi-style takeaway curries at Akhbar Durbar in the city in Top in Town in Sandringham. I know I really need to check IVillage, but my best curry in recent years was served in California, at Berkley's legendary Breads of India. (Thanks and credit to my travelling companion Rael, an irrepressible South African Jew who ate curry nearly every night.)

Do I make curry at home? Every single week. But I'm an all-of-the-above curry cook. Sometimes I'll crack open the Madhur Jaffrey or make a rendang from scratch, and I'm a particular fan of the River Cottage Baked Chicken Curry. But I feel no guilt about opening a premixed sauce or paste when I'm tired or in a hurry, or when it just works really well (come on down, Rasoi Magic muttar paneer sachets). Exception: dal. It just doesn't make sense to buy it. I'll almost always use whole spices, because the aroma of toasted cumin seeds, fresh-ground with a mortar and pestle, is one of the greatest smells known to humankind.

And yes, I still make a mean sausage curry. With tomatoes, undefined curry powder and a whole lotta love.

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