This article was published in the March 2015 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
I fell in love with Indian food in Belfast at one of my now favorite dining spots, the Bengal Brasserie.
Ireland’s take on curry is not the same as in India, of course, but the interpretation is delicious. Eating curry chips doesn’t count – that sauce comes in a packet in a powder form that you mix with boiling water. So, every time I’m home in County Down, I make an effort to have dinner at Bengal, where you won’t find any “sauce packets.”
According to Darina Allen, the Julia Child of Ireland, cooking with spices only gained momentum in the 1980s when Allen first offered a course called, “Cooking with Fresh Herbs.” Until then, most people didn’t have access to much more than parsley, thyme and chives. At the time, Allen relied on her own garden for fresh chiles because even the specialty food shops didn’t offer the varieties she needed for her Ballymaloe Cookery School.
I’m glad times have changed because the experience at Bengal is a rich and delicious affair. The evening usually starts with poppadums (you have to ask for them), which are served with four different sauces. My favorite is the spiciest – it’s a deep red color, with a thicker consistency as compared to the yogurt-based and sweeter sauces, which can be runnier.
Once we’ve stuffed ourselves full of crispy and delicate poppadums and as much sauce as we can scrape out of the small serving bowls, we turn to the main courses of which there are many. I always go for a balti or tikka masala with chicken (spicy hot or spicy sweet).
Waiting for the dishes to arrive is sort of like waiting for Santa to deliver presents – this is how much I love eating the Bengal curries. Once the oblong dishes arrive at the table, piping hot, giving off enticing aromas, I have to do everything in my power not to inhale the entire dish at once.
With all of this love for the dishes at Bengal, I decided to recreate the experience at home. It turns out that it’s easy, as long as you follow all the steps.
My go-to curry recipe is one by Jamie Oliver, but there are many fantastic recipes, so I encourage you to try a few until you find your favorite. All curries have similar ingredients as the foundational elements: garlic, onion, ginger and tomatoes. I’ve made a few alternations to Jamie’s recipe to adapt his curry base sauce to the Midwest, where it can be difficult to find some of the ingredients, including the 7 spices.
A note about spices: if you’re like me, you may have a cupboard full of jars of oregano, parsley, cinnamon, nutmeg; over time you also may have acquired paprika, cumin and turmeric. Before you begin making the recipe, check all the dates on your spice jars because an out-of-date spice will detract from the freshness of the curry. If necessary, replace old spices.
For this recipe in particular, always use fresh ginger. It’s a pain to peel (I use my vegetable peeler), but the flavor it adds to the curry is worth the trouble of working your way around all the knots and crevices.
The curry base works well with chicken and lamb, but is too overpowering for shrimp. If you’re going to cook meat to accompany the sauce base, brown it first in a hot pan using coconut oil, then let it simmer in the large pot where you’ve already gently fried the spices, browned the onion and combined all the vegetables. Below you can follow the detailed instructions.
Don’t let the variety of ingredients intimidate you. Your jarred spices will do just fine, even if you don’t have a beautiful spice and herb garden like Allen. So take the plunge and try this curry recipe¾it will bring warmth to your belly on a cold March day.
A Midwest Take on Curry
Adapted slightly from Jamie Oliver’s Curry Base Sauce
3.5 ounces red lentils
2 medium onions
3-4 medium carrots
1 red pepper
light olive oil or vegetable oil
6 cloves garlic
2.4 ounces fresh ginger
6 coriander stalks
1 large jalapeno
1 tablespoon ground coriander
½ tablespoon black pepper
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablesppon garam masala
800 grams tin of plum tomatoes
300 ml water
200 ml tinned coconut milk (half a can)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 chicken breasts or ½ pound diced lamb (meat optional)
A note before you begin: if your guests find the taste of coriander equivalent to soap, leave it out of the recipe.
Wash and soak the lentils. Boil in a saucepan for 15-20 minutes until soft.
Peel and chop all the vegetables, ginger and garlic. Set onions aside in a separate bowl.
Measure spices into a bowl.
Heat oil in a large, deep pot and be careful not to let it burn, decrease the heat and add the spices. Fry delicately for 2-3 minutes, then add the onions for 5 minutes. Once the onions are soft, add all the vegetables, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.
If you want to include meat, now is the time to gently brown it in a separate pan and then place it in the pot with all the vegetables.
Add the tomatoes, water and lentils and cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove heat, take out the cinnamon stick; add coconut milk and blend until smooth using an immersion blender. A regular blender will work as well, but you will need to carefully blend the sauce in stages, minding the heat. I once had scorching curry sauce burst out of the top of my blender, so I now use a kitchen towel to cover the lid while I blend the sauce.
Serve with lightly toasted naan bread. You can purchase naan at most major grocery stores.