Pumpkin and tofu curry. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jesse Mulligan On The Merits Of Curry, His Desert Island Dish

Providing both comfort and creativity during this trying time, our dining out editor gives some food for thought about spicing things up

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if, during the day, you think about eating a curry for dinner, it’s impossible to stop yourself eating it. Once you’ve seen the curry in your head, it’s too late to escape it, a bit like a tsunami or that videotape from The Ring.

With more time to think and more time to cook, I’m in a curry-eating death spiral during lockdown, cooking it most nights and many lunchtimes. In those questionnaires the TV Guide sends to minor celebrities, they’ll often ask, “What is your desert island dish?” to which I always tell them, “Curry.”

Living in lockdown is as close as we’ll each get to our own desert island, and it turns out I was right. As we’re varyingly circled by the vultures of loneliness, hope and doom, mealtimes become sources of comfort — and there is nothing so comforting as deep spice.

I’ve been eating so much Indian food that, as with a great curry, when you look at me closely you can see the oil separating from my body at the edges.

RECIPE: Warming Fijian Chicken & Potato Curry

When it comes to spice selection I’ve always been a sort of “fang it all in” guy, which wasn’t helped when I ran into chef Sid Sahrawat a couple of years ago on the street and asked him if he had any tips for the Pakeha masala.

“Just fang it all in,” he said and then, when he sensed I was hoping for something a little more specific, he added, “Try using black pepper instead of chilli.”

I did that and it tasted pretty good, but I was still disappointed by the gap between what I made at home and the takeaways we’d get from Paradise in Sandringham. That changed somewhat this year when I bought A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That — a cookbook created by Kiwi girl Jayshri Ganda based on the recipes of her mother, Laxmi.

Their style is Gujarati, so just one tasty sliver of subcontinental cuisine, but it’s one I’ve enjoyed mastering. The biggest note for me was their incorporation of green chilli, which, minced with garlic and ginger, forms the basis of most dishes.

Potato and lime curry with raita. Photo / Babiche Martens

A day before lockdown my Indian supermarket had run out of fresh chillies but sold me a bag of frozen ones and it’s ended up being the best possible freezer staple.
Apart from a little oil, the Ganda recipes are pretty healthy, though after a while you might find yourself craving a bit more green stuff.

For a few days I subbed out the rice for blanched broccoli, which is nice enough, then remembered saagwala, a spinach gravy I’ve made a few times over the years and loved.

Nadia Lim and Kelly Gibney are my two favourite New Zealand recipe-creators and both do saag dishes you can find online. Kelly’s is more of a soupy style that is flavour-bolstered by chicken stock and coconut cream, however, I usually lean towards Nadia’s more simple combination of ingredients — the green leaves, once wilted and pureed, provide their own wholesome creaminess and one portion of the gravy is big enough to split over a couple of nights. And you can really heap in the greens — by the time you’ve cooked it down, a huge bag of spinach reduces to just a cup or so of bright green puree.

These sauces aren’t time-consuming, though when Sid got in touch to offer a sample of his Cassia at Home curries in a jar, I gratefully accepted. They are wonderful — ready in a few minutes for you to throw in some protein (or whatever’s in the vege bin — I roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with chickpeas the other night) and, with Sid’s permission, I added a bag of spinach to one of them, saag style, which really worked.

RECIPE: Potato, Lime & Cherry Tomato Curry With Raita

My new Gujarati friends use a lot of lamb shoulder chops in their recipes but, if you eat less meat at home like we do, consider picking up a vacuum pack of paneer at Fruit World and add that, cut up, to your curry of choice as a vegetarian main event.

Actually though, I reckon my favourite Indian ingredient is Italian. A Michelin-star chef told me the best thing I can do to improve my pasta sauces is spend the extra couple of bucks on Italian-grown, canned cherry tomatoes and since I took his advice everything has tasted twice as good.

With tomatoes forming such a key part of many curry recipes, I now use that same brand for my Indian cooking and it seems to make a huge difference. I don’t know if the OGs like Laxmi would approve, but I fang it all in anyway.

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