It’s a Wednesday night and a group of us stand at the top of a staircase on First Avenue as two Indian men aggressively promote their dinner specials. One man stands at the entrance of his own restaurant with both arms guiding us through the threshold as if heaven awaits. The other mimics his every move. Both restaurants are flooded with hot chili lights, loud music and the unmistakable smell of curry dishes at $5.95 a pop. My stomach turns as we step to the left after the promise of one free beer, which was to be split among four people. I can’t help but wonder if the same people own these two establishments and the elaborate production is a sales gimmick.
Each time the kitchen door swings open, a strong perfume of cardamom and cumin passes over the crowded room. Curry has a long lasting potency because unlike many mild Western dishes that are accented with a sprinkling of spice, its foundation is a mixture of roasted and ground spices, called a masala. Common ingredients in a masala are cardamom, cumin, chilies, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and fennel seed. The word “curry” was coined by the British to categorize any Indian spiced sauce — however, there is no single recipe for a “curry.” Family recipes date back hundreds of years, some evolving to suit plainer palates and others still fragrant and furious. Thai curries have their roots in Indian recipes and vary mainly in the amount of coconut milk used to sweeten the sauce.
Making curry from scratch is a daunting task if you’re a first timer, but luckily, curry paste and powder are available at almost any bodega or supermarket. I’ve put together a recipe that works every time and doesn’t call for any fancy equipment or culinary knowledge. Plus, friends seem impressed with a girl from the Midwest who can cook up a mean fish curry.
The Midwestern Fish Curry
What You’ll Need (Serves 4)
1 small can curry paste (red, green or masaman)
1 can coconut milk
1 bottle fish sauce
A good squirt of hot sauce
1 pound halibut, diced into 2 inch pieces
2 diced tomatoes
A little olive oil
1 diced onion
3 cloves garlic
1 diced bell pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of whole basil leaves
Heat up a little olive oil in a deep frying pan. Sauté the onions and garlic. Add the recommended amount of curry paste (each product is different and if you overdo it, it may be too spicy). Mash it up into the onions and cook it for a minute or two. Pour the coconut milk into the pan. Add two tablespoons fish sauce and a squirt of hot sauce. Then add the fish and the vegetables and season the whole thing with salt and pepper. Give it one stir, turn down the heat to a simmer and let it bubble away until the fish turns white and the vegetables are soft. Right before you serve your curry, stir in a handful of whole basil leaves.