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|Volume 10 |Issue 22 | June 10, 2011 ||
The Cumin and Curry Powder Conspiracy
NADIA KABIR BARB
People say that once you admit you have a problem, you begin your journey on the road to recovery. I acknowledged years ago that I had an addiction but sadly despite my utmost efforts, I have been unable to cure myself. In fact over time it just appears to be getting worse. When I sit down to watch television, something comes over me and I find myself taking the remote control and pressing the buttons for the cooking channels, this and the fact that I love browsing through cookery books! I have been caught red-handed by my husband and children on numerous occasions watching cookery shows intently, almost mesmerised, and seen them shake their head in despair at my slightly strange interest in all things culinary. What can I say in my defence except that I am fascinated by the gastronomic delights being prepared in front of my eyes and envy the chefs and cooks preparing these delectable and mouth-watering treats, wishing I could sample and recreate them? My husband especially finds this compulsion utterly incomprehensible.
The other day I was watching a programme called Master Chef where the contestants compete with one another in numerous challenges; be it cooking with certain given ingredients, creating a new dish of their choice, assisting in a reputable restaurant etc. to try and win the title of Master Chef. To choose the semi-finalists, the hosts of the show cooked a couple of dishes and asked the contestants to taste them and identify the ingredients. This challenge was to ascertain the ability of the participants to discern different spices and components that had been cooked. I have to say I looked on with growing concern when some of the people could not even tell whether the meat they were eating was lamb (which it was), beef, pork or even duck. However, many of them did a good job in guessing the spices that went into the dishes.
My concern developed into horror when one contestant made the fatal error of suggesting that there was 'curry powder' in the vegetable dish! Needless to say the hosts of the show did not put her through to the semi finals. The host of the programme who is also a renowned chef seemed astonished that someone would think an established chef like himself with twenty five years experience would resort to using curry powder in one of his dishes.
Now for those of us who come from or have lived in the sub continent, we know that there is no such magic formula for our spices that is conveniently labelled as 'curry powder'. Thank goodness for that otherwise we would be eating food tasting more or less the same regardless of whether it was fish, meat or vegetable. Although there are different blends of curry powder, it is ultimately a generic mix of spices.
If you just think about the thousands of different types of 'curries' we eat, each dish has its unique blend and quantity of spices. Not only that but each household, family or individual has their own take on certain food. For example, everyone in my family is a garlic lover therefore the food I cook has its fair quota of garlic, whereas I am not particularly fond of cumin (jeera) so I opt out of putting it in my cooking if I can possibly help it.
If you talk about an authentic korma it does not have turmeric (haldi) or chilli powder therefore most people do not use those spices but what you do find is that the korma may taste different in different homes because of the quantity of spices used rather than the actual components. I think that cooking a 'curry' involves not just technique but also intuition. Rezalas are not the same as Dopiazas and Alur Dom (potato curry) is not the same as Niramish (vegetable curry). So I do get very frustrated when I meet people and they ask me how much curry powder I put in my food.
Now when I say I am not particularly fond of cumin what I really mean is I dislike it vehemently. I am ashamed to say that my feelings may even border on hate. I remember years ago when I was in University, my friends and I used to frequent a local South Indian restaurant and their Bhel puris and dosas were delicious but one fine day they decided that they should start putting jeera in the majority of their dishes. I was devastated by this betrayal (when you are young things take on a magnitude that in later years can seem rather trivial case in point). So what could I do but stop visiting this restaurant and transfer my patronage to their competitor down the road also serving similar food minus the dreaded cumin.
What I have learned by watching these food channels is how even in the world of food things change. In my opinion, not always for the better. I have realised that more and more chefs and television cooks appear to have developed an affinity for the dreaded 'C' word – yes you guessed it – cumin. As my daughter just pointed out the 'J' word if you're in Bangladesh – jeera! Wherever I look someone is adding a pinch or dash of cumin in soups, vegetables, chicken, fish and everything else under the sun that is edible. The thought of eating croutons with cumin or pitta bread sprinkled with jeera sends shudders down my spine. I know many of you will think I am being very hard on cumin as a spice and I really do not want any Cumin Rights Lawyers getting on my case about discrimination.
I understand that for most of us it is a case of personal preference and taste when it comes to food but what I have observed is that more and more people in the UK seem to cook with cumin. I think it might have to do with the misconception that to make food exotic or deshi, you have to add cumin although this is not necessarily true. To prove my point, I even went to the lengths of going through my Bangladeshi cookery book and identifying only twenty four recipes out of eighty six that had jeera in them! I think I also just proved how serious my addiction has become but in the grander scheme of things maybe it's not such a bad thing after all...
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