It’s almost 3 years since Dad’s unexpected death. As we were having Lara this weekend and because Jeff and Monika would be staying to watch Wales v Denmark in the second round of the Euros and having, as it turned out, a short but powerful living room disco with Pip and Lara dancing to ‘I Like to Move it Move it’ and ‘Goosebumps’ and something else by David Guetta that made me feel out of touch with modern music, I felt in the mood to make some Anglo fayre including a) a beef curry, b) salt fish patties and c) karti kebabs. What with one thing and another (Lara and Pip and eating out a lot on Saturday) I didn’t soak the salt-fish or defrost the pastry for the kebabs in time, but the beef curry, inspired by the Sri Lankan ‘Beef Colombo’ that I’ve enjoyed at Papaya restaurant in Northfields over the years, went round enough for everyone, eked out by plenty of mango lassi and naan bread, and way too much rice.
Mum used to make beef curry in our caravan in Garessio when it rained. I’ve reminisced about this experience before: the first puffy clouds in the morning would tell us that we were in for heavy weather so Mum would cycle off to one (or all) of the macellerias (butchers) in town and ask for beautifully thick and succulent red steak to be diced into small chunks in her broken Italian; she would then locate garlic, chillies, red peppers, passata (pulped tinned tomatoes mixed with concentrated tomato puree), and lots and lots of sweet onions; she’d spend ages wandering around the aisles pretending to look for rice that wasn’t arborio for risotto but really just enjoying being in shops that smell of parmesan, cured meat, saw dust and dried broad beans. It was dark in these stores, and cosy, unlike the brash overhead lighting of our supermarkets. She would get American easy cook rice if she hadn’t brought her basmati from home. She wouldn’t forget the natural yoghurt, cucumber, fat tomatoes fresh from someone’s local kitchen garden, and all the other standard breakfast comestibles that we would be expecting: bum rolls, mortadella, salami Milano, prosciutto, more tomatoes, fresh peaches and apricots, and cheese – we liked Swiss emmenthal but they liked gorgonzola.
Back at the campsite at around around 11am, she would stoke (connect) the paraffin cooker (set in the awning, not in the caravan itself), marinate the beef in her Madras curry paste to save cooking time (she always took Pataks to Italy), fry the onions and garlic with a thumb of ginger she would also have brought with her knowing ginger was harder to come by in Garessio, and a handful of other spices that she brought in a jam jar from home. She would set her daitchkey over a low heat and let the curry bubble gently for a couple of hours. My job would be to slice the red peppers for the salad nearer lunch time (working on the one for me one for the plate principle) and I would help with fetching water for the rice and watching it doesn’t boil over. Shouts of “mind the cooker” rang out from dozing parents if we tore into the awning away from a double-doofer bee or a sibling who was on the rampage after his lego Millennium Falcon was broken.
We used to have a folding metal table as our dining table in the campsite. It looked like a suitcase when it was folded and inside were four small deck chairs sporting gaudy 70s canvas – orange, brown and yellow stripes. We would all have a small chair each and Dad sat on his bigger camping chair that had arms on which he would balance a plastic beaker of red wine, or sweet coffee in the morning. Because of the rain, we would eat our curry in the awning as the caravan’s folding table was not big enough for five, but brilliant for 3 children playing with lego. I don’t remember eating the curry as much as the memories of the cooking process. I imagine we ate from cereal bowls rather than the flat bakelite plates we had. What I do remember is that washing up after curry was a more arduous experience than empty pizza boxes. The torrential mountain rain would peter out by late afternoon so we would have Pollini’s pizza in the evening. We took our empty boxes back to the restaurant the next day. No washing up!
This weekend I used my slow cooker for the curry. I don’t know why but I never normally use it for curry. Dhal yes. Curry no. I prefer using Mum’s big metal saucepan on the hob that came to Italy with us every year, even though it catches slightly at the bottom. The benefit of the slow cooker is that you can (and should) sear the meat first in a frying pan, then fry the onions in the beef juices, then cook all your spices and tomatoes for the masala after that. Then everything can be transferred to the slow cooker and left all day on low. Sometimes I find if it’s left too long, the curry sauce splits into much more oil than you anticipated but if you stir in some yoghurt at the end, it all comes together again and is thick and dark, like an authentic lamb curry. The meat is super tender, and, because it’s beef, falls apart beautifully and adds to the meatiness of the sauce. The other thing I’ve learnt after years of thin or too tomatoey curry woes, is always, always cook plenty of onions very slowly until they they’ve softened and have taken on a deep brown colour before adding your spices and tomatoes. The addition of onions, I think, is essential to getting that dark curry sauce and flavour. I don’t add salt during the slow-cooking process either. As Mum would say, “you can add, but you can’t take away”.
At half time, I measured out (way too much) basmati rice (a cup per person but I calculated six people instead of four as the kids don’t eat much), rinsed it three times until the water runs clear, bring to the boil with about a tablespoon of salt (sounds a lot but there was a lot of rice!), a handful of cumin seeds, two bay leaves from the garden, and a spice ball filled with about 6 cloves and 5 cardamon pods. When boiling, I turn the heat right down and clamp a lid on. While this was cooking, I put two shop bought giant naans in the oven and then mixed together yoghurt, cucumber, mint from the garden, a splash of malt vinegar, and some chopped coriander. When everything was ready, I spooned some melted ghee over the naans, chopped them with a mezzaluna, and sprinkled over more coriander. Everyone helped themselves.
I’m not going to write out a recipe as it was basically a standard masala for 400g of meat – onions, tomatoes, chili powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric, curry leaves, mustard seeds, black pepper and garlic and ginger pastes. I add about a teaspoon of everything (half a teaspoon of chili powder) but I let the mustard seeds spit before adding the tomatoes. The curry leaves give it a tang along with the tablespoon of yoghurt at the end, which I think makes it taste more Anglo-Indian.
Wales lost the football but we sang ‘The Boy from Nowhere’ by Tom Jones to commiserate and to remember Dad. I’d had a couple of German beers by then and Jeff had a bottle of Sake. Tres international. As luck would have it, Italy played the second match of the evening and beat Austria, a victory I’m sure my parents would have enjoyed more than a Welsh victory.
I’ve called this post Ruby Curry because (as well as being a play on ‘Ruby Murray’) another thing on my mind is the fact that we’ll soon be moving out of Southall, near to where I lived in Hanwell. The owner of the house we’re buying is a nonagenarian called Ruby who has gone into a care home. I can’t help but wonder what Dad’s life would have been like if he’d stayed in his house until his nineties. After he died, we packed up his house much like Ruby’s friends are packing up hers – trying not to be sentimental about furniture cherished over the years now destined for charity shops, sorting through the holiday knick-knacks and photographs and wondering why we bother to plan for the future when so much is tied up with the past.
When we bought the house we’ll soon be leaving, I remember it was around lunch-time and the owner of the house was cooking a cauliflower curry. The smell was evocative of Mum’s kitchen and I instantly felt at home. Ruby’s house is different: it’s very much like our current house (which is very much like the house I grew up in on Woodstock Avenue), but there’s a different sort of familiarity. The cooking smells are long gone and the kitchen is basic and slightly dilapidated. It’s more like Uncle Mark’s house from across the road. I can’t imagine the first meals I’ll cook there but I will have Mum’s ‘campsite cooking can-do’ attitude: as long as I’ve got a saucepan or two, a jam-jar of spices, and really good meat, we’ll have a pretty decent curry. Sliced peppers and camping chairs essential.