Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please

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It is almost impossible for the average person to prepare authentic Indian curry. That is, unless you were born into the culture. Or, if you grew up in India as did my American friend, Patricia.

On the other hand, you can learn to love to eat curry anywhere in the world at any stage in life. “Curry Love” began in our family when we moved to Singapore 30 years ago, in 1987. This is also where I met Patricia. It was our first overseas living experience. We left Denver, Colorado with two young children in tow for an out-of-country family adventure.

Patricia was born in a high ceilinged colonial bedroom in a remote village in 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. A 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 his young family to a different village with a local population of 500. This is where Patricia and her siblings grew up.

From the age of five, each child in their family was sent to Woodstock, a boarding school, since 1854, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It took three days and three nights on a third class Indian train to get there. One carriage held all the students rounded up going to Woodstock, with many stops and re-hooking to different trains along the way.

Patricia graduated at eighteen and moved to the United States for the first time. At the University of Iowa she double majored in East Asian Languages and Literature [Japanese was her language] and Archeology. Four years later, she went back to earn a bachelor’s degree in Nursing [BSN]. She received her ESL degree in Singapore after moving there with her teaching husband and young family. When they returned to the U.S. after six years in Singapore, she worked as a neonatal ICU nurse for more than 25 years. Now she teaches yoga, with a 500-hour teacher’s certification. Oh, and Patricia speaks fluent Hindi too.

During school holidays, back in the village, Patricia and her local friends entertained themselves creatively. After collecting dried dung patties for fuel, they cooked rice and curry in primitive little outdoor picnics. Later, in university years, her older sister began the tradition of weekly family curry night.

Many curry-themed parties were enjoyed in Patricia and Bart’s Ulu Pandan apartment. Sometimes we dressed in traditional garb purchased in “Little India”. Little India is also where we ate “banana leaf” curry, with our hands. The heady smell of open containers of Indian spices intermingled with the overpoweringly sweet fragrance of jasmine flowers, woven daily into necklaces, is an enduring memory of Singapore.

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Patricia and Bart centre stage on curry night, circa 1988-89

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our try at authenticity, Indian style, 1988-89

In May 2015, Patricia came to visit us in Paris. Of course she wanted to set aside a day to cook curry in between sight seeing, yoga-posing photo ops, and eating delicious French things.

Fresh ingredients were purchased at the Indian grocery in the 10th Arrondissement. Green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, green chili, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, onions, spinach, and okra. [This is also the location for the best Indian restaurants in Paris.]

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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, dessicated coconut, dried curry leaves, cumin powder, fenegreek, red pepper flakes, sea salt and black pepper.

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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, I developed an uncontrollable urge to re-arrange my spice cabinet. Each spice purchased in a plastic bag from the grocer now needed its’ own tiny jar with homemade label taped on. Simultaneously, old spices on the shelf were carefully considered or weeded out. It was detail work I knew how to do.

Admittedly, I abandoned learning curry prep from the beginning. I simply could not focus on the endless micro-steps of ingredients and spices from start to finish. Apparently I can’t write them down coherently either. Rereading my notes, I see only a list of words. No amounts or explanations. I have not one clue how to cook any of the delicious dishes we enjoyed that day.

The truth is, you have to feel it. I wasn’t kidding when I said you had to be born into Indian cooking to do it justice.

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our parisian curry feast, sans pokora, consumed long before in the kitchen

From the opposite end of the food spectrum I learned to replicate a different Patricia recipe. In the Green family Singaporean kitchen you could always count on two things. One was about food and the other was about tropical living. Ever-present on the countertop was a dark cocoa chocolate sheet cake. Everyone was welcome to dig in, anytime. The second thing was the house gecko that lived under the refrigerator. He scurried out, usually under cover of darkness, to eat mosquitoes or ants, and certainly food crumbs off the floor. In the beginning he was small, perhaps two or three inches in body length. Over the next four years he grew substantially longer–and wider.

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One day, Patricia came home and noticed that someone had left the lid off the chocolate cake. Not a good idea in a tropical climate. On closer inspection, she saw the gecko, now a robust eight-incher, floundering on his back in the thick, gooey, chocolate icing. Unable to re-right himself, wiggling wildly, he was going nowhere.

She picked up the cake pan and ran outside. Using a spatula, the gecko was flipped onto the grass in the apartment common area. Fearing fire ants would attack his sugary skin, she carried out pitchers of water and tried to rinse off the chocolate-y coating. Then left him to his fate.

Back in the kitchen, a bit of icing scraped off, the surface re-smoothed and the cake pan recovered. That evening her husband said, “What happened to the cake? The icing is so thin.” In the end she told him because, after all, the gecko was part of the family.

Miraculously, that chocoholic gecko found his way back to the five-star-under-the-refrigerator hotel. He remained part of the household until they left Singapore.

Deliciously fragrant Indian curry, moist dark chocolate cake, and a loyal lizard are another part of my memories from Singapore. Unexpected and offbeat combinations of people, places and food have richly colored our overseas life.

Many of my most vivid remembrances started with friendships forged in exotic locations. We laughed and we learned, as we leaned toward each other.

Luckily, we still do.

 

PATTY GREEN-SOTOS’ COCOA CHOCOLATE CAKE

Butter a 9×13 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 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

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out of the oven, cool before frosting

Icing:

  • ½ C. butter
  • 2 C. powdered sugar
  • 4 T. cocoa
  • 3-4 T. milk or chocolate liqueur
  • Beat with mixer until light and fluffy. Spread over cooled cake and cover.

 

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friends anywhere in the world–here in paris-may 2015

Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians

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World Cup 2014: Germany 7, Brazil 1 [soccer-blogger.com]

There has been plenty of press about Brazil lately. Their national depression over losses in the recent World Cup barely registered with me. Recently reported problems readying venues for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro seem a minor glitch. These things usually work themselves out. Even if, in the end, there is little hot water in the hotels, as Sochi 2014. The Games must go on.

My love for Brazil comes from another place entirely. Once, many years ago, a Brazilian recipe solved my first-dinner-party-hosting angst in Singapore. An overseas friend recently reminded me of this. She was there. As it turned out, it saved her too.

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adam with his teacher, International School Cyprus, 1991

Mary [aka Mimi by her family] was part of my life in the first three of our five international settings. We met in Singapore as part of a group of friends and families who celebrated Thanksgiving and went on beach holidays together. Then, in Cyprus in the early 1990s we became better friends. cyprus-europeShe lived in the apartment above us and was our son Adam’s third grade teacher. I loved her creative style of communication. When Mary wanted to see me, an empty coffee can was lowered from the balcony above our terrace on a piece of string. Rounding the corner from the driveway, with a tin can swaying in the breeze, I knew there would be a folded piece of paper inside: “Meet after school for a brisk walk” or “Come up for a wee dram of scotch” on her tiny balcony. Often it was both. Later, in Taiwan, we were part of a group of women who bonded during weekly Friday afternoons with wine and hors d’oeuvres in each other’s homes. “Wine and Unwind” sessions solved most of the world’s problems, at least during those years.

The first year in Singapore we accepted many invitations to dinners, parties and holiday events. By the next year, we were past due in repaying friends for their hosting kindnesses. At the time, I barely cooked and certainly nothing worthy of dinner party fare. I consulted cookbooks and generally worried about what to do. For the family, I tended to stick to one-dish meals, everything mixed together without all the fuss and muss of separate courses. I took MFK Fisher’s advice to heart; an in-home dinner party is best when served to no more than six invited guests. Since this would require several weekend party paybacks, the menu needed to be deliciously repeatable for us too.

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singaporean chili crab, courtesy of serena foxon

Singapore was, and is, ripe with fantastically fresh seafood. It’s also known for spicy cuisine from the mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultures. In the late 1980s, we regularly dined at a seaside restaurant on Punggol Point. There we feasted on chili crab that made our lips and faces sting from layers of spiciness. It was served with thick pieces of white bread to mop up the sauce. The whole thing was so delectable that no one stopped eating until the table was a littered mess of shells, claws and sauce. It was eaten informally, with the hands, wearing a paper bib. When you finally stopped, past the point of “full”, chili sauce covered both hands, went up the arms, and was smeared across cheeks and chin. There were hoses conveniently accessible afterwards.

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nyonya laksa, courtesy of fiona foxon

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walking down emerald hill road

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peranakan place, earlier days

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peranakan place, now

Another Singaporean dish I adored was Nonya Laksa. This is from the Peranakan culture, a combination of Chinese and Malaysian cuisines. It’s a coconut curry-based soup with noodles, vegetables, prawns, and hardboiled quail’s eggs. I lost my taste buds to the heat of spices in this soup and never looked back. A walk from our apartment down historic Emerald Hill Road took me to the restaurant at Peranakan Place, on Orchard Road, where I learned to eat this national treasure. It’s a double whammy to be sweating from the heat and humidity of daily tropical temperatures while simultaneously sweating from spicy food in an un-airconditioned cafe. We adapted. And loved it all.

It was actually another friend who helped solve the dinner party dilemma. Knowing that I needed simple and foolproof, she suggested a one-dish wonder, Brazilian Shrimp Stew. Finding fresh shrimp and produce was easy. Mixing them all together to cook in a large pan, even easier. To serve—a portion of rice for any size appetite with shrimp stew swimming over the top, seemed like a hostess’ dream. Easy preparation, plenty of time for socializing with guests and a tasty result—I could not ask for more.

Mary was among the groups of friends invited for dinner. At the time, she was raising twin sons and a husband, all with good appetites. Like me, she was [and is] uninspired by daily cooking. This easy-to-make stew not only caught Mary’s fancy with its’ spicy shrimp tastiness, she adopted it’s crowd pleasing potential to her own style of entertaining. Since reminding me of eating shrimp stew first under our roof, then making it her own success story, I now call it “Mimi’s Brazilian Shrimp Stew”. It has saved two non-cooks from dinner party anxiety uncountable times.

The enjoyment of Mimi’s Stew should be more global and far reaching than this shared history. It is for anyone and everyone who loves Brazil, her emotively fanatic football fans, and the simplicity of a scrumptious one-dish meal. Just add dessert. Bon appétit.

Mimi’s Brazilian Shrimp Stew

  • 1 kg [2.2 lbs] peeled shrimp
  • 1/4 C. olive oil
  • 1/4 C. chili oil
  • 4-5 large fresh tomatoes, diced, or 1 large can diced tomatoes [do not drain or seed tomatoes]
  • 1 large onion, chopped [or a combination of red and white onion]
  • 1 large green, yellow or orange bell pepper, chopped [or all three]
  • 3 T. parsley [fresh is always best, cut with scissors]
  • 6-7 crushed garlic cloves [or more]
  • fresh hot peppers, red or green, chopped and seeded [optional, or to taste]
  • 1 t. salt
  • ¼ t. pepper
  • ½ can unsweetened coconut milk [or the whole can because what else will you do with the rest?]

Heat oils. Add all ingredients except milk. Cook 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add coconut milk. Serve over rice. Use chopped green onions and fresh lime wedges as garnish. Squeeze lime juice over the stew table side. Serve with good bread to mop up the sauce.

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basic raw ingredients

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ingredients ready to cook

In Mary’s words: “I have made this recipe many times. Since you don’t specify how many it feeds, I just add more of everything if it doesn’t look like enough.”

Spoken like a true non-cook, who adapts.

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cooking for 15 minutes

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mimi’s stew

I made this twice recently for back to back dinners and it serves six easily.