Curry by Naben Ruthnum was released by Text last month. It’s is an engaging little book that draws hilarious and sharp connections between curry and how it functions as shorthand for brown identity in representing the food, culture and social perception of the South Asian diaspora.
Shalini Kunahlan, our marketing manager was keen to try out Naben’s mother Kay’s prawn curry. Here’s Shalini to tell us all about what ended up being quite a challenging culinary adventure:
I volunteered to make the curry featured in Naben Ruthnum’s brilliant essay, Curry, because, well, I am the perfect candidate: brown, diasporan – doubly removed – and I love me some god-damned curry, even if it is a dish ‘that doesn’t really exist’.
I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Sri Lankan Tamil parents. My great-grandparents migrated from Jaffna to Malaysia in the forties as part of the great British colonial labour flow. I have lived in Melbourne for the past eighteen years, having arrived as part of the great South East Asian student migrant flow.
Growing up, I was always told I was Sri Lankan Tamil ‘not Indian!’ a nuance that meant very little to middle-grade racists on the playground. And to be honest I never really cared too much until I travelled to Jaffna in my early twenties and ate in the only hotel left in the war-torn city centre. I remember eating a curry, I forget which kind now, and thinking ‘holy shit this tastes exactly like Mum’s’. It was a strangely powerful affirmation. To the untrained palate, there is probably very little difference between a South Indian chicken curry and a Sri Lankan Tamil one, or a Sri Lankan person and an Indian person – looks the same right? But there it was: years of racial misrecognition and displacement calmed and edified via curry.
Food is a sport in Malaysia. It is the purest and most peaceful expression of our complex multicultural heritage. You’re more likely to get a ‘Hi, what did you have for lunch?’ than a ‘How are you?’ I grew up eating traditional Sri Lankan Tamil food. Food I used to moan about – ‘Fish curry again??’ – but would kill for now. I’ve imported my culture’s obsession to Australia. I cook all the time and am actually pretty good at it. But like author Naben Ruthnum, I share the same suspicion of vague hand-me-down recipes and nostalgic self-flagellation i.e. ‘I will never be able to make a curry as good as my mum.’ It also doesn’t help when my mum brings her own spice powders when she visits. Reckons the Australian stuff is no good.
Either way, here I am primed and ready to take on the cultural complexities of making Naben Ruthnum’s mum’s curry: Kay’s ‘Madras Prawn Curry’. Or, as Ruthnum puts it, his ‘Homecoming Shrimp Curry’ – and I can see why: it’s bloody good.
The recipe seemed pretty simple and straightforward at first. But Mrs Kay, lady, I’ve got a bone to pick with you on behalf of every self-doubting child of the diaspora. Kay’s recipe, ‘a direct paste of the email that Mom sent me so I could botch the making of the dish’, featured the usual gaps and approximations and inscrutable methods. Give this recipe to the uninitiated and they’d get very cross and throw away the opportunity to try an excellent dish. But lucky for you, and me, I have weathered gaps, confusion, mysterious instructions and learned to insist on measurements when asking for a family recipe. So here’s Kay’s Curry, humbly translated by yours truly.
‘Kay’s Madras Prawn Curry’ (My translations in brackets)
- Large prawns…cleaned and ready
SK: 800g unshelled prawns. I used Queensland banana prawns, shelled and deveined, leaving the tails on. Save a few prawn heads to add serious flavour to this dish and use the rest to make a seafood stock for next time. Bouillabaisse?
- 2 large onions…peeled and pureed
SK: I used large red onions.
- Coriander leaves washed and chopped up
SK: This is for garnishing. I used a large handful.
- Tamarind soaked in warm water
SK: If you’re using the paste variety, use two teaspoons. If you’re using an actual tamarind block (sticky seed paste) rip off a decent chunk, approx. 50 cent piece diameter, and soak in warm water so it just covers the chunk. Pulp with your fingers to loosen and discard the seeds. Use the rest for the dish.
SK: ½ teaspoon for sprinkling on prawns at the start.
- Methi…seeds or fresh
SK: This is fennel. I used seeds, about ¾ teaspoon.
- Curry leaves…if available
SK: I used 10-12 leaves and think this is essential. Don’t be lazy.
- Garlic and ginger about a heaped teaspoonful of each
- Fish curry powder…(I buy the fish curry powder from Superstore). You can use the regular or your own mix as well. About 3 tablespoons or more…it all depends on the size of the onions…
SK: I used one heaped tablespoon of Baba chilli powder which you can get this from any Indian grocer (basically use anything but the chilli powder you get from the supermarket, it’s too hot and ruins the dish), one heaped tablespoon of coriander powder and a teaspoon of turmeric.
- Water or coconut water
SK: I used water. This is to liquefy the paste when cooking.
- 2 tomatoes, chopped up
SK: Use large tomatoes.
- Green chillies
SK: A couple, chopped finely.
SK: To taste.
In a large pan heat some olive oil, sauté the prawns with a sprinkling of turmeric. SK: I also threw in the prawn heads at this stage. Do not overcook the prawns. Remove and put aside. Throw away the liquid.
Heat up some more oil, add the pureed onion…stir still softened and lightly browned. SK: Sauté chillies in the oil first, then follow this step.
Make a pit in the middle, add the curry powder mix (tamarind, curry leaves, methi, ginger, and garlic in some warm water).
SK: This one was a doozy. Make a well in the middle of your sautéed onion mix, and add the spice powders, tamarind paste, curry leaves, methi seeds, ginger, garlic and some warm water (the addition of water is to prevent the well mixture from drying out, I think). I also suggest lightly mixing up the well mixture, sautéing it within the well section. Do not mix with the onion yet.
Add a little bit of oil on top and let cook on low heat.
SK: Add a bit of oil onto the well section (I made this up, sorry Kay) and cook on a low heat, covered, for about 15-20 minutes. Check on the well mixture a couple of times, stirring, to make sure it doesn’t stick to the pan too much. Add a bit of water/coconut water if it does.
Allow the curry to cook thoroughly with the lid on…but checking often… add a little water or coconut water to prevent sticking then mix the onion with the curry….Now is the time to choose the thickness of your sauce…this should be a fairly thick one. Add the chopped up tomatoes.
SK: Once the well mixture is cooked, stir it in with the onions and sauté for a few minutes. I wasn’t really sure how I had a ‘choice’ so I just went ahead and added the diced tomatoes and stirred. I did add a bit of water to this mix as I wanted to make sure it cooked evenly and was able to ‘simmer’ as per the following instructions.)
Let simmer for a few minutes. Add the prawns. SK: Add prawns heads too. Stir through to coat.
Simmer some more. SK: For 10-15 minutes. Prawns don’t need much cooking but you do want them to marinate in the sauce.
Add your chopped up coriander and serve with rice or rotis. SK: I also served it with my mum’s salad: 2 Lebanese cucumbers, diced; 1 large tomato, diced; quarter of a red onion, sliced finely and 1 chilli, diced finely – mix and salt before serving.
Did I mention it’s excellent? (Ed’s note: We can confirm this, it was delicious.)
Read Naben’s positively entertaining and insightful essay, sit down to this meal worthy of a homecoming for a prodigal child, then for dessert devour his creepy and utterly satisfying psychological thriller, Find You in the Dark written under a pseudonym, Nathan Ripley, which he discusses in Curry – it’s a fascinating section.