Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Killer Curry In Cambodia: In The Kitchen

Luckily there was a 2kg tin of tomatoes being used as a doorstop back at the restaurant. Dee, one of the Cambodian cooks, was serving a few customers. Josh told me to come back at 4pm when the broom cupboard kitchen would be quieter. I had between 4pm and 6.30pm to get a killer curry made before another two cooks turned up.

Dee was finishing her last order when I returned. Josh was fretting around behind me.

“So what do you need? What do you need?”

Thankfully, he soon left us to it and returned to his card game with a man on red wine. I borrowed a chopper, board, and a plastic bag for the off-cuts and got to work on the sack of onions.

Dee was standing around, watching me anxiously. She still had no idea what the strange long nose was doing in her kitchen. All Josh had said was “we make curry.” She obviously wanted to chop the onions, but I wasn’t taking any chances. The onions had to be right. I’d had enough set-backs already without ballsing up the onions.

I got her to peel some garlic, and then I realised just how good a cook she was. She blitzed the garlic, then started on the meat. I showed her how I wanted the breast cut up, with six cubes out of each one, and two minutes later there was a mountain of glistening, perfect cubes. She told me she’d started in the kitchen as a pot wash at 14, and had worked for the past six years under a series of long nose chefs. It was in her blood.

I threw chopped onions, ginger, garlic, red chillies, and two scoops of sea salt into a huge pot with plenty of vegetable oil, and started cooking the curry base down. I didn’t want to rush the sauce, but the clock was ticking and another order had come in to mess things up. I let the onions simmer for 30 minutes until they had that sweet, melted confit texture you’d use for onion marmalade.

I started thinking about the customers again. They were no doubt already down the bar swigging ice cold Anchor and talking about their curry. They’d probably even written out score boards. I knew they were anxiously waiting for me to mess things up. One of them, a huge pit bull of a man, had already cracked jokes about if his curry wasn’t good enough, he wasn’t going to pay for it. But as he’d survived five years in a Thai jail I wasn’t going to argue with him.

Dee was fascinated by the curry, and I could tell she was taking it all in. I said Tom and Josh were lucky to have such a good chef, and told her to ask for a pay rise. I got her to sniff each of the spices as I threw them into the onions and explained how it was important to cook the sauce for a long time. I fried the spices for a few minutes and then added two fat cinnamon sticks and three bay leaves, and more water to stop the paste catching on the bottom.

Dee finished chopping the tomatoes, and added them to the pan with the juice from the tin. We’d let them cook down for another 45 minutes. It gave us about 30 minutes to finish the dish. Josh popped his head in, and showed me the blender he’d promised. It was about the size of a coke can.

I had about 10 litres of sauce to blitz. I didn’t have another big vessel to pour the pureed sauce into, and there wasn’t the time or the surface space to fill up a load of plastic containers.

I was just glad I’d finely diced the onions, and got Dee to do the same with the tomatoes. With plenty of oil and cooking it should almost go down to a smooth sauce, but again it wouldn’t be perfect. Then Josh came back and said he couldn’t find the grinder for the fenugreek. I thought about the boxer again and his freshly made curry pastes on the Curry Mile.

The onions had almost dissolved by the time I put the chicken in. I let the curry gently cook for another 30 minutes or so. I added more salt and some lemon juice, sugar, and tomato ketchup (the secret ingredient in Indian restaurants). It was as good as any I’d made at home, I was sure of it, but then it was hard to remember. I was in foreign climes, nursing myself with gin and tonics to quell the afternoon sun, my mouth salivating at the very thought of curry. I was in no position to judge.

But somehow there was still something missing. I tried more lemon juice and vinegar, but there was a sharpness missing. Then I reached for the bottle with the cobra curled up inside.