Curry by the Book

Vij’s: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine
By Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala
Douglas & McIntyre, 2006; $29.95

Why is it that I so rarely cook Indian food at home? It is one of my favorite cuisines, if you call it a cuisine; it’s really a most satisfying hybrid of cuisines, with many regional styles. But I always seem to eat Indian food out. In truth, I don’t have the gut knowledge of spices that is necessary to cook it casually, which is how I prefer to cook. If I am going out, there is no place I’d rather go than Vij’s, a few hours north of me in Vancouver, where Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala have managed to develop a wonderfully nuanced Indo-Canadian style. They are virtuosic with spices. Each curry they create lets a single spice or flavor element shine against a supporting cast of other spices: In the goat curry, it’s kalongi (a.k.a. nigella seed), in the short ribs it’s cinnamon, in a grilled asparagus and corn dish it’s fenugreek.

Now the couple have published a cookbook, and I hope their starring-spice approach will give me the tools to finally grasp the nuances of complex masalas. Vij’s is very much a restaurant-based cookbook, which means that if you are looking for an encyclopedic scope and authenticity, you may be happier with the books of Madhur Jaffrey, Julie Sahni, or Yamuna Devi. The hybrid style of Vij’s makes the book inviting: It is driven by taste and curiosity as much as by tradition—and the Pacific coast is constantly making its presence felt in the preparations. I like seeing an Indian approach to mussels or a hunk of Columbia River sturgeon; and when it comes to the stuff that’s important—toasting one’s own spices or patiently preparing a sofrito-like wet masala, Vij and Dhalwala are traditionalists.

It should come as no surprise that, restaurant-inspired as it is, this is also a bit of a project book; the methods aren’t too daunting, but there can be a lot of elements. The most complicated recipe is for venison medallions that sandwich a filling of milk jam (khoa) and figs, served with pomegranate curry. Most recipes are a good deal simpler, but they still reflect a certain restaurant mentality: The shopping lists can be quite long; the preparations require lots of pans. It is hard to imagine doing an appetizer, a side, and a main course from this book without making sure that someone else is washing dishes.

I’m hoping I’ll have the time to make the tomato and coriander quail cakes or the venison recipe sometime (my guess is that I’ll try that pomegranate curry and forgo the stuffing), but meanwhile I find myself poring over the entry-level recipes: a mustard-seed curry with long beans and potatoes; an eggplant, tomato, and green-onion curry; or the book’s most basic chicken curry recipe, reprinted here, which works as a sort of baseline reading of the recipes.

Vij’s Family Chicken Curry

{I tried the basic chicken curry; it stood out among all the more exotic curries because even though I know that Indian cooks make their own spice blends for each curry, I’ve always just done chicken curries with curry powders—good ones —but ready-made mixes nonetheless. The family chicken curry, while of the familiar yellowish sort, called for its own blend of spices, so I followed along.}

1/2 cup canola oil {This is a lot of oil, which pays off in the silkiness of the sauce}

2 cups finely chopped onions (2 large)

3-inch stick of cinnamon

3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

2 tablespoons chopped ginger

2 cups chopped tomatoes (2 large)

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon turmeric {There’s not as much turmeric here proportionately as in most commercial curry powders—a good thing, because too much brings a leafy astringency to the table. Also note that there’s no fenugreek in this curry—another typical curry powder spice.}

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon garam masala (recipe p. 26) {Making garam masala is really just a game of chicken played on a stovetop—I toasted the cumin, black cardamom, clove, and cinnamon in a dry pan on the stovetop; the smoke started billowing upward, and my two-year-old son and I started hacking. Stirring, stirring—how dark should the cumin seeds get? I settled for a dark coffee color and let the mixture cool off. According to the book, many commercial garam masalas aren’t toasted, so they lack the depth this one adds to the curry.}

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

3 pounds chicken thighs, bone in {My husband asked for “legs” at the grocery store, and we ended up with drumsticks—more tendons to navigate, but still tasty.}

1 cup sour cream, stirred {For those of us who always marvel how creamy Indian sauces can be, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that, in fact, they contain cream. Score one for the moghuls.}

2 cups water

1/2 cup chopped cilantro (including stems)

In a large pan, heat oil on medium heat for 1 minute. Add onions and cinnamon, and sauté for 5 to 8 minutes, until onions are golden. Add garlic and sauté for another 4 minutes. Add ginger, tomatoes, salt, black pepper, turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala, and cayenne. Cook this masala for 5 minutes, or until the oil separates from the masala. {One begins to appreciate all the moments that serve to concentrate flavors in these recipes. Here, when sweating the onions to start the stew, you go for a little color, unlike the practice with most French preparations; then you add a little garlic and again let things get a little colored. Finally, you add your precious garam masala—which, remember, has already been toasted—and tomatoes, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, and coriander, and let it all cook together again until the tomatoes cook off their juices and the oil separates from the spicy paste below.}

Remove and discard skin from the chicken thighs. Wash thighs and add to the masala. Stir well. Cook chicken thighs for 10 minutes, until the chicken looks cooked on the outside. Add sour cream and water and stir well. Increase the heat to medium-high. When curry starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times, until chicken is completely cooked. Poke the thighs with a knife. If the meat is still pink, cook for 5 more minutes. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Cool curry for at least half an hour. {Here’s another moment of flavor concentration—letting the curry cool before serving. We were in a rush the first night of the curry and served it hot, but then I ate it for lunch the next day and the spices had knit together with the meat in a much subtler way, and the cayenne’s impact went from a little harsh to a gentle, warming tingle. Do not be afraid to eat chunks straight out of the refrigerator.}

Transfer cooled chicken to a mixing bowl. Wearing latex gloves, peel chicken meat off the bones. Discard bones and stir chicken back into the curry. Just before serving, heat curry on medium heat until it starts to boil lightly. Stir in cilantro. {After cooking this recipe, I tried another chicken curry from the book. It used fewer spices that were kept whole and got most of its punch, instead, from a mint and cilantro chutney that was stirred into the stew shortly before serving. Though they share many ingredients, the difference was striking between this yellow curry’s full-bodied warmth and the other’s play between nutty toasted cumin and coriander, and the rounded grassiness of the chutney.}

To serve: Divide curry evenly among six bowls.

Wine: A Spanish Tempranillo with good fruit and balanced tannins is a great complement to this curry. {Vij has provided articulate wine notes for each dish, but just pawing through the book makes me thirsty for the crispest of lagers.}