It began with an error.
The Goan prawn curry was simply wrong. It lacked tang, it lacked life. Our dinner guest had a brainwave. She said it might be amenable to East Asian, possibly Vietnamese, treatment by adding bean sprouts and kaffir lime leaves.
The next day, the leftover curry got the East Asian touch—to be precise, Thai: Kaffir lime, it emerged, was growing well in our kitchen balcony; bean sprouts were available at the local store; and peanuts were plentiful. A bed of noodles soaked in the diverse flavours. A big squeeze of lime. The result was immensely popular with three generations of Halarnkars, ages 84, 56 and 11.
If there is one thing year 2 of the pandemic has taught me, it’s how to elevate the mundane, finesse the ordinary—to kindly adjust but with style. It really isn’t that difficult. Inspiration can come from a friend, as it did this time, but you can do some thinking of your own, so you look forward to a meal that rises above sustenance. Life is too short and uncertain, now more than ever, for bad or ordinary food.
One good way to do this is to abandon the straitjackets of culinary tradition and embrace diversity. I have always found this rewarding. I must clarify that I am not an advocate of “fusion food”, although there is undoubtedly some element of that in what I cook.
There is a fine line between merging cuisines for the heck of it and using elements from one that appear to smoothly fit into another. There was a time when fusion was all the rage among restaurateurs but I think the pandemic shuttered some or many of these attempts. Just as well. I mean, Brussels sprouts sushi? Maggi pakora? Tandoori chicken bruschetta? While I acknowledge there is no accounting for individual tastes, I draw some lines.
My feeling is that the entrée you see in this column worked because of the common base between Thai and Goan cuisines: coconut. This is not the first time I have used these similarities.
Sometime in the early 1990s, I made a Thai coconut-milk curry using a packaged spice brand called Namjai, which served me well for years as a substitute for Thai spice mixes made from scratch. The curry I once made appeared to lack sourness. So I tossed in my beloved kokum, the dried rind of Garcinia indica, from the mangosteen fruit family. The resulting Thai-Konkan curry, made in fish and vegetarian versions, took 15 minutes to make and went on to become a mainstay at parties.
Similarly, there were other experiments that worked. I once made a Tamilian kozhi molavu varuval (chicken pepper fry) with couscous, which sounded improbable but tasted just fine. I suspect the pepper helped bridge the gap between the Maghreb and the Kongu Nadu, a region that goes easy on spices when cooking meat.
Speaking of similarities with the Maghreb, we in India take to tagines very well because of the commonalities with our curries. Tagines may not be quite as spicy as many of our curries but the basic idea is the same: Use an accompaniment or base to absorb them.
So when couscous has been hard to find, I have used Mumbai pao and red rice to soak up tagines. Once, I used the Indian version of couscous: barnyard millet, or mandua as it is called in the lower reaches of the Uttarakhand Himalaya. It’s hard to find, though. Dalia works like a charm. It is, after all, bulgur wheat—the same as couscous—that isn’t partially cooked before packaging, as the couscous you get in stores is.
Many of these experiments dwindled over the last year as I veered towards the traditional, which may have had to do with my in-laws staying with us for many months. They are the kindest, most uncomplaining souls but they are culinary traditionalists, to whom even fish roe is suspicious exotica. But, as I said, the second year of the pandemic has given expression to my latent desire to fool around in the kitchen, helped greatly by an inability to find many ingredients. I better prepare the family to transition to their role as guinea pigs.
Goan-Thai Prawn Curry Over Noodles
For the curry
Half kg medium-size prawns
Half coconut, shredded
3 tsp fish masala (or any garam masala)
Half-inch piece fresh ginger
2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
2 tbsp tamarind paste
4 tsp finely chopped fresh garlic
2 tsp oil
7-8 kaffir lime leaves
Salt to taste
For the noodles
2 packets rice noodles
A handful of bean sprouts
2 tbsp crushed peanuts
3-4 spring onions, finely sliced
Juice of one lime
Grind coconut, fish masala, ginger, Kashmiri chilli powder, tamarind paste and salt, adding water when needed. Heat oil in a pan and fry garlic for a minute. Add the ground coconut and fry for three-four minutes. Add water to give it the consistency of a curry. Bring to a boil, add prawns and lower heat. Prawns should cook within five minutes. Set aside and mix in kaffir lime leaves.
Prepare rice noodles, cool with water once done, add a teaspoon or two of oil to separate and drain. In a large dish, spread the noodles. Heat prawn curry and pour over the noodles. Garnish with bean sprouts, spring onion and peanuts. Add lime juice before serving.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.