A never ending bowl of curry
As a child, I wished for a bowl of my grandmother Dolly's curry that would never run out and always remind her of home. In New Zealand, my wish came true.
For my recipe lovers:
Make the curry fast with Dolly Mumma’s ready-to-cook curry paste
Why is this curry different to the one that you might be cooking?
When I was a kid, Mum and I went to my grandmother Dolly’s house every Saturday for lunch.
The menu was always the same: Dolly Mumma’s prawn curry with steamed rice.
In the morning, Mumma would send my grandfather to the market to buy a fresh coconut for her curry masala while she sat on the shared balcony of her apartment in Mumbai keeping a watch out for the fishmonger. Mumma would clap loudly when the fishmonger arrived and call her up to the apartment. She’d handpick the biggest prawns she could find, always sneaking in a few extra after the price was fixed, saying, “Arre, these extra ones are for my granddaughter. You know how much she loves eating your fish.”
Then Mumma would clean the prawns with salt and chickpea flour before marinating them in turmeric, red chilli powder and salt. They’d sit on the counter covered, while her curry bubbled away on the stove, the aroma of the curry leaves filling the home. We’d arrive at Mumma’s house around 12.30, tired from rushing around the city at various extracurricular activities. Mumma would immediately push me directly to the basin to wash my hands and feet and “become free” from the outside clothes I had on. Meanwhile, she’d finish off the curry, slipping the marinated prawns into the pot and adding a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
As we all gathered around setting the table, Mumma would bring out her famous prawn curry, a glass bowl of kachubar – onion salad – balancing on the saucepan lid.
We’d sit patiently while Mumma served us the curry rice in our steel thali.
Having grown up poor, she took fairness very seriously when it came to serving food. Every family member was served three potato pieces and five prawns to go with their rice and curry.
Except me – I got eight prawns. If you questioned it, Dolly Mumma would laugh and say that it was because the fish lady had given her extra prawns, especially for me.
While I never said no to the extra prawns, it was Dolly Mumma’s curry that was always the star of the show. I always had one serving with my rice, the next couple of ladles served on top of my kachubar, and then a final serving that I’d drink using my squeezed-dry lemon rind as a spoon.
My mum says that she has never seen a child eat the way I used to – slowly, with my eyes closed, relishing each bite to the fullest.
One of my family’s favourite stories is the time Dolly Mumma asked me what I wanted to inherit from her.
Cuddled up to her, tummy full and nearing a curry-induced coma, I innocently told her that all I really wanted was a big, never-ending bowl of her curry that I could always have and remember her by. Given that I can still taste Mumma’s beautiful medley of fresh coconut, spice, fish broth and curry leaves when I close my eyes today, this story sounds legit. Come on, what’s not to love about an overflowing saucepan of fish curry?
Our Saturday curry tradition fell by the wayside when my parents separated and we moved first from Mumbai to Pune, and then to New Zealand. Of course, Mum would still make prawn curry, I’d still eat it, but it never tasted the same. Mum was sure it was the lack of fresh coconuts that was the culprit. And I was sure that the curry wasn’t right because it was Mum cooking it and not Dolly Mumma.
I was at work when I got the call from Mum.
She was crying as she told me Mumma had passed away. Absurd as it may sound, my mind went straight to those afternoons we spent in her home eating curry. I also felt instant remorse: I’d only just seen Mumma a few months earlier, but didn’t bother asking her for her curry recipe.
Learning how to make it was always something “I was definitely going to do one day”. And now she was gone. I no longer had anything special of hers that I could treasure.
Mum and I couldn’t afford the plane fares back to India for Mumma’s funeral, but we mourned her loss by cooking prawn curry together. Even with the fresh prawns and the freshly grated coconut that Mum had managed to get, Mumma’s curry just wasn’t the same without her special ingredient. If only we knew what it was.
When we next went back to India and visited my mami (aunt), there was a cardboard box waiting for us, a parting gift from Mumma. My hands dug past the three saris and the velvet pouch that no doubt had some jewellery in it for mum, until they came across a book.
As I lifted it out of the box, I noticed that the book was actually a tattered diary.
Curiosity piqued, I flipped through the pages that were filled with scribbles in Gujarati. There were a few recipes with interesting ingredient lists – how many grams is “five anna (cents) of pumpkin”, I wondered – names of suppliers that offered the best produce in Mumbai, and even the phone numbers of Mumma’s favourite fishmongers.
What caught my attention was a loose piece paper tucked into the centre spread. It was headed: “Machi (Fish) ni Curry for vahli (dear) Perzen”. My heart skipped a beat. She had remembered.
The curry came out just as I remembered Mamaiji making it. In that minute, I was transported back to my childhood – me licking my fingers clean, the smell of curry leaves faintly lingering in the air while she smiled proudly at me.
The next morning Mum and I went to the fish market for fresh prawns and coconut and got working in the kitchen.
Mum made the curry masala while I cleaned the shellfish and chopped the potatoes. Soon, the curry was bubbling away and the aroma in the house was exactly like the one in my memory.
We learned that the missing flavours were in the time it took to roast the peanuts and cashews separately before toasting the other spices. More flavour had been lost when we ground everything together rather than grinding the dry ingredients before doing the wet.
And the reason Mum’s curry never had the right texture? Turns out she wasn’t frying the chickpea flour in oil before adding the masala paste.
With the curry paste fried and the water added, Mum added five prawns for her and eight for me. We smiled at each other in excitement. The curry came out just as we remembered Mumma making it. Even the house smelled exactly the same. That day at lunch as Mum and I licked our plates clean we were both transported back to those beautiful afternoons in Mum’s childhood home.
Dolly Mumma’s curry has been with me in all my food endeavours.
Inheriting Mumma’s curry was the first step I took toward reigniting my love for Indian food.
It taught me the secret to cooking good food – taking your time. It’s an instruction often missing from modern recipe books.
I wanted to make sure that the recipe was never lost again and so, it became the first recipe I wrote on my food blog. It was also the first item on my menu when I started my catering kitchen in India, the first proper meal I fed my children and now, the first product I bottled for my range of Indian curry pastes.
Every now and then an email will land in my inbox from a customer who’s made Dolly Mumma’s curry in their own home. The gist of those emails is often the same: in cooking Mumma’s curry they were able to bring alive the edible memories they have of their loved ones.
That never-ending pot of curry I wanted to inherit from Mumma? In sharing Mumma’s curry far and wide, turns out I cooked my own never-ending pot of it after all.
*this essay was originally written by me for The Spinoff. I am grateful to them and their readers (and you!) for supporting my work.
Why is this curry different?
Indians view curry differently. For us, it’s a category of dishes and not a single recipe. This is why, each state will have at least hundred different curries, and even for those, the flavour would change from home to home.
Mumma’s curry is similar to a coastal Manglorean gassi because it’s made with coconut flesh or at a stretch with desiccated coconut. In comparison, curries from Goa or Kerala are creamier because they use coconut milk. Where this curry differs from a gassi is that we don’t use tamarind and rely on the lighter sourness that comes from lemon.
I’ll finish by saying that the best kind of curry is prawn curry. While salmon and pomfret (or golden pompano as it is known on Kiwi shores) are my favourite kind of seafood, for curries I love using prawns. You could also make this curry with red meat but be warned that the flavour is quite different to one made with fish.
Mumma’s Prawn curry (makes enough for 4)
For the curry masala
1/2 or 150gm fresh/frozen coconut chopped into pieces or 200gm desiccated coconut
1 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp white sesame seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
50 gm raw peanuts
30 gm chopped cashews
10 cloves of garlic
15 dried Kashmiri chillies (don’t skip these chillies!)
400gm canned diced tomatoes
For the prawn marinade
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp red chilly powder (can be skipped to make less spicy)
1 tsp salt
350 gms of prawns shelled and de-veined but with tails on
For the curry
2 tbsp. wheat flour
100ml cooking oil
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilly powder (can be skipped to make less spicy)
1 tsp curry powder
2-3 stalks fresh curry leaves (frozen will do in a pinch)
Salt to taste
2 large potatoes quartered
Juice of 1 lemon
Before you make the curry masala accumulate everything you will need onto one plate – this makes life easier once you start roasting and grinding.
Once ready, dry roast all the seeds, peanuts, and cashews until their aroma starts wafting in the kitchen.
Now, blend the seed mixture along with the coconut, garlic, chillies and tomatoes adding water (about 600-800ml) as needed to make a thick paste. Keep grinding until you have a fine paste. If you leave the paste coarse, the curry will not come out smooth.
While grinding the masala, you also need to marinate about the prawns in a turmeric, red chilli powder and salt marinade and set aside for about half an hour.
Once this is all ready, in a crockpot add some oil and fry the wheat flour making sure no lumps remain. Add in the curry masala and saute for about 5 mins until the wheat flour is mixed well into the masala and the masala no longer sticks to the sides of the crockpot.
Next, add the turmeric, red chilli and curry powder along with water into the crockpot to get the curry to the right consistency. Ensure that you don’t put too much water. Add in the prawns, chopped potatoes and curry leaves into the crockpot and let the curry simmer for 20 – 25 minutes until the prawns are cooked. Fix the seasoning at the end and add in a big squeeze of lemon juice.
Enjoy with Fluffy Steamed Rice and some Bawa Kachumbar.
Make this curry simple with Dolly Mumma
275gm Coastal Curry Paste
500gm fresh or frozen prawns (preferably with tails on)
Salt to taste
Optional: 2 stalks curry leaves
In a saucepan, tip in the entire jar of Dolly Mumma Coastal Curry paste.
Add in the water and mix well until the paste has loosened. If you would like your curry to be thinner, add in more water and if you'd like your curry to be thicker allow the water to evaporate as the curry cooks.
Cut the potatoes into cubes and add them into the curry. If you're using curry leaves, add them in now.
Cover the saucepan and allow the curry to simmer for about ten minutes until the potatoes are nearly cooked.
While the curry is cooking, marinate your prawns in salt and set them aside.
When the potatoes are cooked, add in the prawns and stir everything once again. Cover and allow to simmer for a further seven - eight minutes until the prawns are cooked.
Adjust the seasoning if required.
Serve hot with steamed rice with a squeeze of lemon and a red onion salad on the side