I had fresh herbs that morning, marjoram, and thyme. I rubbed a few leaves between my fingers and smiled in satisfaction at their sweet, woody flavour. I like to wonder where my food comes from, and since I tend to romanticise or create these images in my head, I could picture them growing in cool, fertile European meadows, or perhaps the Levant.
The reality, alas, was that I had just removed them from plastic packets, which I had bought at a neighbourhood store after weaving my motorcycle in and out of noxious traffic. Both spices required cool weather, so perhaps they had been grown in the Nilgiris, so there was that.
And I had fresh, fat prawns. From the Arabian Sea, I imagined, where…well, this was pointless romanticism. They had come from the Rabbani fish stall in Cox Town, where a man with a whisk keeps flies away and rush-hour traffic deposits its dust and toxins.
Deflated, I looked outside. At least the giant flame of the forest, the palash, outside my kitchen window kept my mind’s eye on endless journeys. I knew what I did not want to do with the prawns—make my usual Goan prawn curry, one of my comfort foods.
Comfort food is all very well, but, really, it’s overrated, especially with Indians. Left to ourselves, we will eat nothing but comfort food, making little or no attempt to explore what’s out there in the wide world. When we travel, we look for comfort food. At home, we like comfort food. We almost fetishise comfort food.
The mainstream, mainland Indian definition of comfort food, as it is defined in popular culture, is quite narrow, given the diversity of this country. All these influencers are always pushing the best dal, the best vada pav, the best dosa, the best nalli nihari. Come on. How about telling me where you get the best bibimbap or the best paella? Let’s not even go that far—how about the best jadoh or the best arikadukka? If you don’t know what they are, it only confirms my little rant about comfort food. Please google.
To return to the prawns and herbs, I thought it might be wise to explore one of Mexico’s many cuisines, which have some similarities with ours but are refreshingly different and—to a cook unfamiliar with them—challenging. Now, Mexican food, as it is sold in India, appears to centre largely around tortillas, burritos, salsa and refried beans, Indianised with chicken and—shudder—paneer.
Yet, I know Mexico is a melting pot, its food a melange of Spanish, indigenous and Afro-Caribbean influences. While we in India are generally not acquainted with seafood in Mexican cuisine, it is a staple in Veracruz, the region along the Gulf of Mexico.
When I showed the spouse a Veracruz recipe from one of my old books, she was surprised that it called for olives and capers. It sounds Italian, she said suspiciously. But that’s the Spanish influence, which you can see in the recipe below: I haven’t used olives or capers, but the black peppers, garlic, marjoram, thyme, cinnamon, and cilantro are firmly Spanish.
I did not have access to Mexican chillies—anhos and pablanos, for instance—but I did have some smoked paprika, and that would have to do. It is Mexico—and indeed the Americas—that is the true home of chillies, which have been in use there for thousands of years. In contrast, they came to India only about 600 years ago via the Portuguese. You’ll find chillies in every other Mexican dish.
So, I began with the foray outside my comfort zone. It wasn’t very discomforting, given the familiar ingredients, but the approach to cooking prawns was not something I had done before. The thing about prawns is that they cook really quickly, so you only need to get the ingredients right and watch them go pink, which I did.
My mother and child were suspicious about prawns not made the Goan or Maharashtrian way, and it seemed obvious it was not comfortable enough for them. They said it was “nice”, which is another way of saying maybe you should skip this next time. I had it with Manipuri black rice, and I thought the combination worked wonderfully, infusing our dinner with some romanticism from Veracruz.
Half kg medium prawns
1 onion, chopped finely
4 medium tomatoes, chopped or pulverised
8-9 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh marjoram
1 tsp fresh thyme
2 tsp fresh cilantro for garnish
2 mild green chillies, split lengthwise
1 small stick of cinnamon
Half tsp sugar
5-6 black peppercorns
1 tsp smoked paprika (substitute with Kashmiri mirch)
Juice of half a lemon or lime
2 tsp vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Heat oil gently in a non-stick pan. Drop in the green chillies, peppercorns, and cinnamon. When they begin to swell, add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add onion and sauté until they begin to brown. Add tomatoes and sugar and sauté for three-four minutes. Add smoked paprika and sauté for a minute. Add marjoram and thyme, and mix well. Add salt, lemon, or lime, mix, and then add prawns. Turn over the sauce and prawn for a couple of minutes, until the prawns turn pink. Take off the heat and transfer to a dish. Serve warm with tortilla or rice (we used black rice from Manipur). Garnish with cilantro.
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. On Twitter, he posts @samar11.