Photos by Stacey DeWolfe
This weekend, I wandered into one of my favourite Parc-Ex joints, Dhillon Brothers, to pick up a few bottles of Ting — its grapefruit-y essence allows me to temporarily delude myself into thinking it is healthier than other sugar-flavoured beverages. When I approached the cash, I noticed that the man behind the counter was unpacking a large box of fresh curry leaves — thick and waxy, and still attached to their shrubby branches. I was intrigued.
As I mentioned last week, I have long been a fan of the Duguid-Alfords, and it’s through their recipes that I have become comfortable cooking Indian food. But though they advise against using dried curry leaves, I have spent the last several years doing just that. This time I would heed their warning and discover what fresh curry leaves had to contribute in terms of flavour and texture, using what was required and freezing the rest (as is easily done) for future use. But what to make?
I had recently been to Costco and stocked up on some canned crab, which is, in fact, a poor substitute for fresh or even frozen crab (but can be used to make crab cakes when one comes home and discovers that there is nothing for dinner). I went looking for Indian-themed crab recipes online and came across a website called Kothiyavunu, which had something called nadan njandu varutharacha curry (or spicy crab curry with roasted coconut). Again, I was intrigued.
Cooking Indian food can be overwhelming because, in addition to the plethora of unfamiliar ingredients, dishes are prepared in a series of stages. This is weekend-dinner food, when you can give yourself over to the pleasures of the process: a trip to the market and an hour or two of prep in a warm, aromatic kitchen, preferably with music and loved ones and, if you are so inclined, some wine.
Fearing that the canned crab would be overwhelmed by the curry, I picked up a dozen large raw shrimp, still in their shells, and went to work. What follows is my interpretation, and simplification, of the recipe.
Spices: Curry leaves (20), cardamom pods (2), a cinnamon stick, cloves (2), star anise (2), fennel seeds, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, coriander, red chili flakes, mustard seed
Ingredients: one hot pepper, a cup of unsweetened coconut, a can of crab, a dozen whole raw shrimp, four medium-sized onions, three large cloves of garlic, rice, spinach (optional), vegetable oil
There are five parts to this dish — a shrimp stock, a simmering liquid, a roasted coconut paste, a spice blend and a tempering mixture — but you can combine a few and still produce something tasty. You will need onions for every part, so slice and dice four medium-sized onions and put them in a sautée pan over low heat with about four tablespoons of vegetable oil. Stir them occasionally, but allow them to brown and sweeten. Then mince three large cloves of garlic and put them aside.
To make the shrimp stock: wash and peel your shrimp, putting them into a bowl of cold water and their skins into a pot. Add about three cups of water, bring it to a boil and let it simmer over low heat. To prep the shrimp, simply run a sharp knife over the back, and if you see a black vein, pull it out and toss it. This is the deveining process, which is tedious and a bit gross. Put the deveined shrimp in the fridge.
For the garam masala: put a half-teaspoon of fennel seeds into a small, dry frying pan with two cardamom pods, one half of a whole cinnamon stick, two cloves and two star anise. Roast over medium heat until the spices become fragrant. Keep an eye on this, though, as they can easily burn. When they smell toasty, take them off the heat and let them cool. Then grind them into powder and put aside. (NB: Though not mandatory, it’s better for flavour and freshness to buy your spices whole and grind them yourself using a cheap coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle.)
Now it is time to prepare the curry. Put one teaspoon each of ginger, turmeric, black pepper, coriander and red chili flakes into a bowl. Add the garlic, a half-teaspoon each of fennel and fenugreek, one minced hot pepper and mix into a paste.
When your onions are nicely caramelized, bring up the heat and add a half-teaspoon of mustard seed. Let it cook until the seeds begin to pop, then add your spice mixture and stir, letting it cook until it becomes fragrant. When that happens, add a cup of dry, unsweetened coconut and roast, stirring often so that it doesn’t burn. You want the coconut to be brown and toasty, so let it cook for about 15-20 minutes.
When things are looking and smelling absolutely delicious, add the shrimp stock, one can of crab and about 20 curry leaves.
Bring it to a boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer. If, like me, you feel a meal without greens is not truly a meal, add two large handfuls of spinach to the pot. Then put the rice on.
When the rice is done, add the garam masala (spices) to the curry, then add the raw shrimp and allow them to cook until just pink. Eat immediately with rice.
The remaining curry leaves can be wrapped tightly in plastic and popped in the freezer. They don’t need to be thawed — just grab a handful when you get a hankering for something new and tasty in your mashed potatoes, sweet potato soup or scrambled eggs. ■