By Azfarul Islam
“So, what's that? The, uh, one in the middle”, I gestured towards what appeared to be a nondescript reddish-yellow concoction, with chunky bits.
“Sir, that's Chicken Tee-kah Masala”, the waiter announced with gusto.
“Chicken… Tee-kah… Masala?” I queried with what, I guarantee, was a look of befuddlement on my face.
“Yes sir. It's quite popular”, he revealed, against all possible belief.
It wasn't long before I found out that “Chicken Tikka Masala” was indeed quite popular in England. It was also something you'd never find in your mom's cookbook (actually, do those even exist nowadays?). While the true fiend behind this hasn't been unveiled, one thing is certain: it was made by none other than the white man. You know, them people. Apparently, actual curry wasn't good enough and the resulting improvisation lead to a pale imitation that's now being hailed as Britain's true national dish. Great.
The most common variety you'll find is either fluorescent red or yellow, presumably for attracting a customer-base always keen on the, uh, 'exotic'. And it usually tastes of someone trying to make curry based on solid tenets such as “curry is colourful” and “curry involves spices”. Along those lines, Thai green curry isn't supposed to have the same colour as grass, but an otherwise fantastic buffet restaurant begged to differ.
In between this is my own quest for creating authentic curry - the ones that I always had at home back in Bangladesh and more importantly, the ones that my mom made. See, while I've managed to pick up pretty much any foreign cuisine, the traditional curry that forms the very foundations of our country (What, you thought plain fish and rice were going to help build a nation? The Japanese may have done it, but we still need that fire in our bellies that only curry can provide!) had always eluded me. I'd like to say I had some ancient manuscript passed down through the generations or at least a new notebook with handwritten recipes, but that wasn't the case. Well, to be fair, I had an e-mail from my mom - a reply written when I, in the throngs of random hunger and missing home, asked her how I could make some of my favourite Bangladeshi dishes. That was as good a starting point as any.
So. Egg curry, an enduring classic. It went simply enough: fry or boil an egg, cut some potatoes, sauté onions, add spices and simmer. Well, those were the very basics of what was a pretty meticulous set of instructions. I couldn't fail, right? Not realising that making food in Bangladesh usually involved someone else maintaining stewardship of a slow-cooking pot, I did everything with all due speed. Oh, and how was I to know that turmeric could be so, um, lethal? The end result: a very yellow fried egg (the yolk had nothing on this colour) with some barely softened onions, an extremely watery gravy (heck, let's just say it was slightly spicy water) and potatoes that weren't too bad. It was filling at the very least or was that because I had enough rice to drown out most of the 'curry'?
It's pity that my attempt at something that should ideally run in my blood (including a lot of fat, because seriously, we need to cut down on the oil in deshi cooking) failed. On the other hand, all the cuisines of the remaining world came quite easily to me. It was a bit embarrassing to say the least.
This time I thought I'd try something that one couldn't go wrong with: chicken. What an ironic endeavour this was. I decided to “improvise” and thought I could come up with something worthwhile. And on paper (not literally… I was making up the recipe as I went along), it sounded pretty good. Thing is, it probably would have tasted better on paper. Using creamy yoghurt and cashew nuts to form a thick spicy sauce? To me, it sounded like a winner, although my dad had a few doubts. It was actually going quite well, to be fair. The air was rich with an aroma which, while not exactly curry, was quite fragrant. That was my first mistake… not realising that it didn't smell like any curry I'd ever had. I guess that was somewhat the point, but let's not dwell on that. It was almost time for the last simmer and I faced my old nemesis - the sulphurous turmeric. I eyed it down with care and gingerly shook some onto a spoon. And still managed to tip a lot more than I wanted. This dish looked strangely familiar, and I'm not talking about the egg curry…
Brilliant. I'd just made my own version of “Chicken Tikka Masala”. That was a highly disappointing realisation.
In the end, let's say that we were feeling generous that evening and offered an extra-large portion of “Holdi Chicken” to a visiting relative. Interestingly enough, he actually liked it, which wasn't something I can admit for myself or my dad.
Fast forward many more months and I find myself hungry and craving some curry. Cause for panic? Nah. This time I was more prepared than ever. By now I'd had a hand at experimenting with all types of cuisine from basic Chinese to obscure Spanish. Now, it was time to return home. Not literally of course. Have you seen ticket prices recently?
With my mom only a mere one-hundred and twenty miles away (as opposed to forty times the amount) and my dad on his way down to spend some time with me, I had all the reason in the world to succeed.
Azfarul Islam went on to improvise his new chicken curry dish and came up with something he couldn't name. However, his dad had some and said that it was some pretty awesome Jhalfrezi, the nomenclature which he ardently agreed to whilst sighing inwardly with utter relief. And to be fair, it was quite delicious and now, eight hours into a fourteen-hour fast, he wishes he had some left for Iftaar.