It is almost impossible for the average person to prepare authentic Indian curry. With its’ countless spices and detailed combination of ingredients, you need to be born into the culture. Or, you can absorb the know-how as my friend Patricia did, by growing up in India.
Friendships and food, often in exotic locations, are part of the story that has richly colored, and flavored, our life overseas. “Curry Love” began in our family when we moved to Singapore with two young children in 1987. It is also where Patricia and I became friends.
Patricia was born in a colonial bedroom in the remote village of Tilda, in the state of Chattisghar, central India. Two generations before, her grandfather built the hospital there. Infrastructure was limited because it was a tribal area, but the local people had medical care. One generation later, her father returned to India as a Village Extension Worker with a specialty in agriculture. His job was to bring clean water, air, and other forms of conservation [soil, sewage] to rural India. He moved the family to a different village, Bisrampur, with a local population of 500, when Patricia was very young.
From the age of five, the four children in the Whitcomb family were sent to Woodstock, a Christian boarding school in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India. Mussoorie-Landour was a former British hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas. Hill stations, during the British Raj, were high altitude towns used for vacations to escape summer’s blistering heat and dust in the plains.
It took three days and three nights on a third class train to reach Mussoorie. One carriage held all the students rounded up in various villages. There were many stops, re-hooking to different trains, and finally taxis up to Woodstock. The school is spread over a steep hillside, 7000 feet in altitude. Students scamper up and down trails from campus into town like mountain goats. The beauty is stunning.
At eighteen, Patricia moved to the United States. She attended the University of Iowa with a double major in East Asian Languages and Literature [Japanese] and Anthropology/Archeology. Four years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Nursing [BSN]. She received an ESL degree [English as a Second Language] in Singapore after moving there with her teaching husband and young family in the mid-1980s. When they returned to the U.S., she worked as a neonatal ICU nurse in Madison, Wisconsin for more than 25 years. In retirement, she teaches and leads retreats in Alignment Yoga with 500-hour teacher’s certification. Oh, and by the way, Patricia speaks fluent Hindi, too.
During school holidays, back in the village, Patricia and her local friends entertained themselves creatively. Collecting dried dung patties for fuel, they cooked rice and curry in primitive outdoor picnics. Later, in university years, her older sister, Cate, began the tradition of family curry night.
Curry-themed parties in Singapore, hosted by Patricia and Bart, brought together a large group of friends. Sometimes we dressed in traditional garb from “Little India”. We also went there to eat curry with our hands, served on fresh, green banana leaves. The pungent aroma of open barrels of fresh spices intermingled with the heady sweet smell of jasmine flowers woven into necklaces is my takeaway memory of Little India.
In May 2015, Patricia came to visit me in Paris. She proposed one full day to teach me to cook a curry meal. This was worked in between sight seeing, yoga-posing photo ops, and eating delicious French things.
We purchased fresh produce and spices at the Indian grocery store in the 10th Arrondissement. Green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, green chili, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, onions, spinach, and okra. This is also the neighborhood with the best Indian restaurants in Paris.
It takes many spices to cook proper curry. We accumulated black mustard seeds, yellow mustard seeds, sambar powder, garam masala, turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, desiccated coconut, dried curry leaves, cumin powder, fenegreek, red pepper flakes, sea salt and black pepper.
The menu was all vegetable curries, as those are our favorites, with fried pokora, an Indian fritter made with graham flour and veggies and coriander chutney on the side.
I busied myself taking photos of the beautiful array of ingredients and spices in between some chopping prep work. When it was time to begin cooking, Patricia talked me through each step–one by one.
Suddenly overwhelmed, I drifted to the other side of the kitchen with a strong urge to re-arrange the spice cabinet. Admittedly, I abandoned the micro steps of curry prep almost from the beginning. I lost my way with the endless ingredients and order of spices from start to finish. Notes I wrote were a jumble of words without amounts or explanation. I cannot replicate a single dish she prepared.
The truth is, you have to feel it with curry.
At the opposite end of the food spectrum, dessert, I learned a Patricia recipe I have used many times. In the Green family’s Singaporean kitchen there were two things you could count on. One was about food. The other was about tropical living.
On the kitchen countertop there was always a dark cocoa chocolate sheet cake with thick gooey frosting. Everyone was welcome to dig in, anytime. The tropical living side involved a gecko that resided under the refrigerator. He scurried out to eat mosquitoes, ants, and food crumbs, usually under cover of darkness. In the beginning he was tiny, two or three inches in length. Over the years he grew substantially longer–and wider.
One day, Patricia came home and found the chocolate cake tin uncovered. Not a good idea in that climate. On closer inspection, she saw the gecko, now a robust eight-inches, floundering on his back in the frosting. Alive and wiggling wildly, unable to re-right himself, he was going nowhere.
She picked up the cake pan and ran outside. With a spatula, she flipped the gecko onto the grass. Fearing fire ants would attack his sugary skin, she doused him with pitchers of water to rinse away some of the chocolate-y coating. Eventually, he was left to his fate.
Back in the kitchen, she scraped off a bit of frosting, re-smoothed the surface and covered the pan. That evening, her husband asked, “What happened to the cake? The icing is so thin.”
In the end, she had to tell him because, after all, the gecko was part of the family. Somehow that chocoholic lizard found his way back to the five-star-refrigerator-hotel and remained part of the household until they moved.
Of the many things I have learned from Patricia throughout our friendship, I believe this to be the most important. Her upbringing as a third culture kid in India paved the way to a life lesson she exemplifies so well in adulthood. Honed in primitive villages in the dry plains, to boarding school from a tender age amid lush Himalayan hills, to the mid-western United States, to Singapore, and back to the U.S., Patricia learned to lean into life’s changes and persevere through its’ challenges.
She didn’t teach me how to cook curry, but she teaches everyone by example. With compassion, intelligent curiosity, a completely positive outlook, flexibility, and laughter, Patricia leads in the direction of how far we can grow.
COCOA CHOCOLATE CAKE [credit to Cate Whitcomb and P. Green-Sotos]
Butter and flour a 9×13 or 9×9 inch cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Ingredients and Preparation:
- 1 ¾ C. flour
- 2 C. sugar
- ¾ C. cocoa [best quality cocoa recommended]
- 1 ½ t. baking soda
- 1 ½ t. baking powder
- 1 t. salt
- Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
- 2 eggs
- 1 C. milk
- ½ C. vegetable oil
- 2 t. vanilla extract
- Mix the wet ingredients into dry. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes.
- 1 C. boiling water
- Add this last, stirring just until combined. Do not over-mix.
Bake 30- 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.
- ½ C. softened butter
- 2 C. powdered sugar
- 4 T. cocoa
- 3-4 T. milk [or enough to moisten icing so it spreads easily]
- Beat with mixer until light and fluffy. Spread over cooled cake.