Ingredients, perhaps a dash of technique too, possibly even a sprinkle of inspiration or artistry? Yes, it’s all these and more.
Each of the constituents tells a story, and it’s all the stories which together ‘make’ the recipe, adding flavour and richness to what you experience when you taste it.
I cook when I’m stressed or tired, it’s a way of making time. I cook because it makes me happy.
This is a favourite dish, and like all good food it comes with a story, a musing perhaps. This is a quick, simple dish made from a taste memory. I stumbled upon it as I tried to work back towards a dish from my childhood in Kenya; tomato and potato curry with lentils. There, the tomatoes were flavoursome with that ‘just plucked’ smell you rarely get in supermarkets, somewhat akin to the smell of basil; sharp, almost citric, but somehow warm and musky too. Potatoes were of the waxy skinned kind, small, buttery, and with a yellowish cast to the flesh. The coriander was sharp, bright, uplifting. Chillies were fierce. All these feature in the recipe below, and more.
Perhaps it’s my Indian heritage, or the fact that I grew up in Kenya – either way, I embrace using whole spices in my cooking. I can’t bear powders or mixes which have been hanging around, or where the proportions aren’t quite right. Start with fresh spicing and you have an entirely different experience of making food.
Is this dish Indian?
Well, yes and no. Potatoes, tomatoes and chillies all came from South America. The Portuguese have reasonable claim to introducing the trio to India via the Indian Ocean trading networks which also touched Kenya’s Eastern seaboard.
This dish bears certain similarities to, and important differences from , the classic Spanish tapas dish Patatas Brava.
I’m sure the dish has roots in Kenyan soil too, where a blend of trading cultures produced a food style that owes a great deal to the networks long established between India, the Arabian peninsula, the spice islands off the coasts of South East Asia and the Eastern coasts of Africa.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, also known by its Latin name as the Periplus Maris Erythraei, (Eritrea?) is a Greco-Roman account written in Koine Greek which describes navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along the Horn of Africa, to the Sindh region of Pakistan, and southwestern India and back along the various monsoon winds via the Eastern seaboard of Africa, calling at places like Zanzibar, Pemba, Malindi and Lamu. The text has been ascribed to various dates between the first and third centuries, with a mid-first century date now the most commonly accepted. Though the author is unknown, it is clearly a first hand description by someone familiar with the area and is nearly unique in providing accurate insights into what the ancient European and Middle Eastern world knew about the lands around the Indian Ocean. Get more on that, here.
Of course trading networks didn’t just trade goods, they traded ideas too. Historians and theologians might debate this at length, but an increasing body of research seems to point to links between the 6th C BCE Zoroastrian construction of a single divine deity within a dual cosmology of good and evil and the development of Judaism, early Christianity and later, Islam too. There’s lots out there on this, take a look.
Spices too made the journey from East to West, just as gold and goods travelled from West to East to pay for them. The Romans liked nothing better than to burn vast quantities of Asafoetida on their altars, literally translated it’s ‘devil’s dung’ though in fact it’s the dried sap from the tap root of an umbrelliferous herb which grows in Central Asia and India.
The irony of our modern age is that we talk of globalisation as though it was something new. It isn’t. It’s always been here. It’s just accelerated in our day thanks to transport and the internet.
Tomato and Potato curry with Lentils
This dish is for two people. It goes well with a crisp, chilled white wine like Verdicchio or a Sauvignon Blanc, or even an off dry or medium dry cider.
- Take 8 small new potatoes and chop off any unsightly blemishes – I can’t be bothered skinning them.
- Take 8 large tomatoes, or a generous handful of cherry tomatoes and chop roughly. Add a generous squeeze of tomato paste. You can pick up huge amounts of tomatoes for £1 at local markets, don’t be shy, just do it.
- Take a generous handful of fresh coriander and chop the stalks finely, and the leaf roughly. Again the stuff you get from markets is so much nicer than the plastic wrapped stuff in supermarkets.
- Take 6 cloves of garlic and chop finely.
- Take an inch of fresh ginger and slice finely. I buy lots of ginger from markets at a £1 a scoop and then freeze it, ideal for grating.
- Take a fresh green chilli and chop. Again, I usually buy a scoop of these for £1 at a local market and freeze them, taking one out each time I need it. I never de-seed them, and using one chilli in a dish like this isn’t really all that hot. Use two or three if you prefer or add some chilli flakes at the end as you wish …
- Finely grate some fresh turmeric, around half a root (a couple of inches) will do. You can, of course, use turmeric powder, a tablespoon will do.
- Set aside a pinch of Asafoetida to add to the curry and give it that leek like flavour.
If you want to, you can add finely diced capsicum peppers to this dish, or aubergine. Just remember to fry them off well and till they’re soft, there’s nothing worse than under done aubergine – it’s like chewing a rubber flip flop.
Toast about a tablespoon of cumin, coriander, and a teaspoon of black pepper, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, a couple of opened cardamom pods, and four cloves, and black onion seeds.
Once smoking slightly, take them off the heat and grind them roughly in a pestle and mortar. On cardamom pods – I just crack these open and toast them in their husks to prevent burning off the oils. I’ll take the seeds out when I’m ready to grind the spice mix. that way preserving the volatile spice oils released by warming.
Now – get four tablespoons of vegetable oil good and hot, chuck in the garlic ginger and ground spices. Throw in six or eight grains of fenugreek. Add the turmeric and chilli. Don’t let it burn!
Chuck in the tomatoes and bring the whole back up to bubbling temperature for around 4 minutes.
Add the chopped coriander and potatoes.
Now – add around a pint of water and bring back to the boil. At this stage I usually chuck in a generous handful of those red, thin lentils. We call it ’emergency daal’ – the kind you use when you need to bulk out a dish or if someone turns up unexpectedly. Add a pinch of Asafoetida to the curry too at this point and stir well.
Add a good three to four twists of ground sea salt.
Cook down for about 10 minutes, adding a further quarter pint if needed. This dish should be quite liquid, never thick.
Before serving, taste and season. It should have a kick, but it shouldn’t hurt. You can add the juice of half a lemon at this point. You could instead, and which I prefer, add some tamarind (a couple of tablespoons of the very liquid unsweetened kind ideally). I serve it in a huge bowl for each person – a dish rich with memories of warm places and saturated in history.
The whole cooking process should be around 15 minutes – a perfect weekday supper when you want some zing!
Watch out, it’s quite a moreish dish … you’ll want a second serving.
It’s great followed by a fab and generous gelato with fresh red berries. If you prefer, you could have wonderfully syrupy and warm Gulab Jamun, drizzled with a little rose water and toasted cardamom seeds.