Curry-ous Transcript

The Kitchen

    [AB is sitting at the table, with books and papers] As I've been researching subjects for my new book regarding culinary terminology misnomers, misunderstandings, and misuses, I've come across many curious cases of food-related words whose connotations have been contaminated, either through cultural misappropriation or etymological foul play.

    Now so far, I have to say that the single most messed up term I've come across is the word "curry". Now I've reviewed several hundred lines from a dozen different dictionaries, and it would indeed seem that the word "curry" comes from the ancient Tamil language and the word "kari," meaning a sauce or relish designed for service over rice.


    Now the modern definition is given as, and I quote, "a preparation of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices, and used as a relish or flavoring especially for dishes composed of or served with rice."
    How very, completely, utterly, non-specific. Certainly not the kind of descriptor that I'd apply to anything that I would call ...

[Good Eats Theme]

The Kitchen


    Compounding our conundrum is the fact that the word "curry" is rarely, if ever, used in India. Don't believe me? Come here. [takes a credit card out of his wallet, moves to the phone, and dials] I've got connections.

BOB: Customer service. This is Bob. May I have your account number, please. Bob speaking from New Delhi

AB: Well, hi, Bob, this is Alton calling. Say, where do you go for good curry?
B: I'm sorry?
AB: Curry, around Delhi, where do you go for good curry?
B: [sighs] That is so typical of Americans. You assume that because I am Indian that I am eating a curry.
AB: Oh, come on, Bob. I'm going to be in your neck of the woods next month and want to know where I can go, you know, for some decent curry.
B: No self-respecting Indian would ever eat anything by that name. Perhaps you should visit London instead.
AB: Where is that? Is that in town or down south some place?
B: It is in England, Mr. Alton. Now goodbye. [hangs up]
AB: Well thank you for your help, Bob. Nice talking to you.

    Funny that he mentions England, for it is there that the modern concept of curry, such as it is, was born. That concept can be summed up by two words ...

London Restaurant

    ... chicken tikka. The unofficial national dish of England. Some 20 million tikka servings are gobbled down each year here. Most of them at one of London's 4,000 curry houses. Now tikka actually means "bits" or "pieces" in the Tamil language. And here those pieces are served over rice and then blanketed in a sauce, or "kari," saturated with a spice blend known everywhere as curry powder. Everywhere, of course, but in India, where they've actually never heard of the stuff.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Arab and European Traders
              Vasco da Gama
              Sir Thomas Roe
              Emperor Jahangir

    [outside the window] To understand how curry powder happened, we must journey back to the 13th century, when Arab traders and Venetian merchants controlled the flow of spices from Asia to Europe. And, of course, they controlled the prices, which were often so high that India black pepper was worth its weight in gold.

TRADERS: [Arabs pass a small bag of pepper to the Europeans who pass back a large bag of gold. The Arabs whoop it up while the Europeans are dismayed]

    Now this was a pretty sweet deal for the Arabs and the Venetians, but not so much for the big spice consumers, such as Holland and England, Portugal, and Spain. Who became so enraged, that they finally decided to just set sail across the open ocean to find a water route to India, and hopefully, cheaper spices.
    Now for various reasons, most of them did not make it. But thanks to a particularly brilliant navigator named Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese did manage to land in northeastern India and establish trade with the local rulers.

VASCO DE GAMA: [stands up and makes a deal with an Indian wearing a customer service headphone set. They exchange spices for money]

    Now by 1600, the British East India Company, having been soundly spanked by the Dutch East India Company in the spice islands, decided to turn their cannons on Portugal and relieve them of India. And by 1612 they had done just that.

[a Dutchman slaps a Sir Thomas Roe who in turn "sails" over to India and shoots Vasco de Gama]

    By 1618, Sir Thomas Roe was serving as the new English ambassador to the mogul Emperor Jahangir.

SIR THOMAS ROE: [is working out a deal with Emperor Jahangir]

    Now he kept copious records of his work there. He was especially good of noting the meals that he enjoyed. As it turns out, the kaleidoscopic flavors of the subcontinent blew the old boy's meat and potatoes palate right out of the water.
    Now the English eventually annexed all of India from 1857 to 1947. And each and every businessman, soldier, merchant, bureaucrat, and royal who made the trek returned to England with a serious Jones for Indian flavors. Now since they didn't have Indian skills, ingredients, or cookware, the best they could do was smother everything with a gravy, or "kari," packed with ground spices, which were eventually mixed and sold as curry powder. And thus, an entire multi-faceted culture was reduced to a dust. How very modern.

    [back at the table with books and papers] Okay, just because this word [curry], and by extension, this product [curry powder], don't actually exist in India, spice mixtures do. But they're always assembled from freshly toasted spices. And they're highly specialized, depending on the dish in which they are to be employed.



    Now the word for such a mixture is masala, which means, oddly enough, "mixture." Now, masalas can be either wet or dry. The wet versions, or curry pastes, are going to have to wait for their own episode, because we're going to concentrate here on dry masalas. And in particular, the most famous masala of them all, garam masala. All right, garam means "warming" in Hindi, so "garam masala", "warming mixture". And it serves as a flavor primer for a great many dishes. And I say primer because it rarely appears alone, but rather as the foundation for additional spices.



    Now spice merchants typically offer their own unique takes on garam masala, but by and large, this is a mixture most often concocted at home.
    [at the cupboard] Like a good Indian cook, I keep everything that I need to make garam masala here in kit form, where small open tins are nestled inside a larger vessel. By keeping such a kit, I always have garams at hand. And I can easily monitor the necessary supplies. And please note that all are kept in their unground form for maximum shelf life and maximum flavor.

Whole spices stored in an airtight container in a cool,
dark, dry place will keep for several years.

The Kitchen

    Now before grinding spices that are destined for a masala, I always want to toast them first, okay. Heat activates the essential oils inside the spices, rendering them more volatile, and therefore, more effective. You can think of heat kind of like having a good preamp on your stereo, okay? Now even-heat is absolutely key, so I always reach for an eight-inch cast-iron skillet for this job. This goes over medium-high heat.

    Now the actual garam masala mixture could not be more simple: two tablespoons each of cardamom seeds—not the pods, but the seeds—coriander, these are the seeds that cilantro grow out of. And black peppercorns. I prefer the ones from Tellicherry, named after the southwestern port of the same name. There. 2 Tbs. Cardamom Seeds +
2 Tbs. Coriander Seeds
2 Tbs. Black Peppercorns
    Now one tablespoon each of cumin and brown mustard. Kind of stir that in as you go. And we're going to need 20 cloves, by count. Of course, if you don't want to count that high, just go a little bit more than a teaspoon. There, that's good. One stick of cinnamon, about two and a half inches long, broken in half. And for heat, one arbol chili. These are fiery customers, and I advise that you remove the stem and the seeds before crumbling the rest into the pan. There. 1 Tbs. Cumin Seeds
1 Tbs. Brown Mustard Seeds
20 Cloves
1 Stick Cinnamon Broken in
1 Arbol Chile, Stemmed,
    Seeded and Crumbled

    Now just stir, and continue to cook for three to four minutes, or until the entire kitchen smells like an Indian restaurant. There. Now let those cool for five minutes.

    Meanwhile, grate yourself one teaspoon of nutmeg. And yes, I always keep one of these around. When the spices are cool, move them into your favorite spice mill. Yes, I know it's just a coffee grinder, but I keep this one just for spices. Very efficient tool. Just process for about a minute until you have a fine powder. There. Then you can add the nutmeg. Process again just to combine. There we go. 1 tsp. Freshly Grated Nutmeg

    Wow. Smell that. Isn't it just ... Oh, I'm sorry. You can't. Well believe me, it smells good. But that's bad, molecularly speaking, because it means that all those great volatile compounds are just disappearing up into the air. Now we could seal this in air-tight containment, stash it in a place for maybe a month if it's dark and dry and cool. But what we really ought to do is use it. Let's consider some options.

    Say you had a one-gallon zip-top bag inside some container that can hold a one-gallon zip-top bag, and let's say you added one tablespoon of our freshly made garam masala to that, as well as half a teaspoon each of toasted and ground cumin seed and coriander seed. Then one teaspoon of kosher salt goes in. There we go. And we'll also need some black pepper. Just eyeball one half teaspoons worth. Shake to combine. 1 Tbs. Garam Masala
½ tsp. Toasted & Ground
    Cumin Seed
½ tsp. Toasted & Ground
    Coriander Seed
1 tsp. Kosher Salt
½ tsp. Freshly Ground Black
    Then meat. Now I really like lamb for my tikka. So one and a half pounds of cubed lamb leg. The sirloin end if at all possible. You can ask your butcher for that if you don't see it at the counter. 1½ Pounds Lamb Leg Sirloin,
    Seal, give it a shake, put it back into the container, reopen, and then add dairy. In this case, we'll go with one cup of plain whole milk yogurt. Do not use the low-fat stuff here, kids. We need that fat. 1 Cup Plain Whole Milk

    [at the refrigerator] Once the spices, yogurt, and meat are thoroughly mixed, re-seal the bag and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes and up to a couple of hours.
    Now it's important to note that yogurt is the number one dairy food of India. Especially prevalent in the cuisines of the southern states where it appears in pretty much, well, every meal. Often in the form of a thick paste, which serves as a marinade, then an insulator during cooking, and finally as part of the sauce, which is exactly what we are up to here today. Although the final flavor of this tikka will indeed come from this spa treatment, as it is, we must not discount the impact of the cooking device most associated with tikkas in their homeland. Mainly ...

Cafe Bombay]

... the tandoor. Now tandoor basically means "oven," and tandoori refers to foods that are cooked in a tandoor.

    Now although its exact cultural origins are a little shaky, this vertical earthen oven rose to prominence in modern-day Punjab in Northern India, possibly by way of the Middle East and Northern Africa, where similar ovens were used to bake bread for workers toiling on the pyramids. The device itself is cunningly simple. Air enters the bottom of the oven, feeds the open charcoal fire, which in turn loads the ceramic material with an excess of 800 degrees worth of heat. The tapered top creates what engineers refer to as a venturi, focusing the convective heat. In essence, the tandoor is a great big clay jet engine for cooking food.
    Now flat breads, as we see, are typically just slapped right onto the interior walls to bake. But meats cooked in the tandoor go on large skewers. And just about anything can go in here. Now the high heat, especially when it mingles with a yogurt-based marinade, creates a very, very distinct flavor that is regrettably difficult to replicate in the home environment.

"Tandoor" comes from the Persian word tannur, which derives from the Babylonian word tinuru, based on the Semitic word nar, meaning fire.


    [AB is grilling] Well since we don't have a tandoor, we'll have to go with the highest heat that we can possibly manage in the residential environment, which would be a grill on high. It's a lot of charcoal ... [waves his hand over the coals] Ow! ... and it is really hot. You know, it's a shame we don't have a, uh ... [thinks to himself] Wait a second. If we just ... Wait, wait. Wait right there.
    If you had a large terra cotta pot that was unglazed and free of cracks or blemishes, you could, if you wanted to, grab yourself a ruler and a pencil, and make a line about one inch down from the bottom, thusly. There, that's fine. Don't get too dizzy. Then if you had a hacksaw with a masonry blade, you could just cut the bottom of the pot off. There, that's pretty easy.
    [10 minutes later, AB has not made much progress] All right, but I'm not exactly known for my patience. And besides, I've got, well, some eye protection, which is what I'm going to put on first. And then I'll fetch up my angled grinder with a masonry blade. Hah hah hah. Available at your local hardware store. And with this, you can do the entire job in about, oh, I don't know, 130 seconds. There. Nice clean cut. Well done.
    Of course, we wouldn't want this thing to crack when it goes on the heat. So how about an eight to twelve hour soak in just plain old water. Then we'll remove it and allow that to just dry, off to the side for, I don't know, about an hour.

    Meantime, the fire. I'm going to spritz down the financial section with a little vegetable oil. Shove that underneath my charcoal lighter, and pile in one pound, exactly, of natural chunk charcoal. Fire it up. The oil will help the paper burn longer. And when we have nice, hot coals, we will don our fire protection gloves. That's nice. There you go. Just dump that right down into the middle of the grill, and place the pot thusly. Who said we don't have a tandoor? Hah hah hah hah! Now we're going to let that sit and slowly warm so that it won't crack: ten minutes I would say. 1st Batch
1 Pound All Natural Lump
    In the meantime, a 12-inch skillet goes down over medium-high heat. We'll add a quarter of a cup of vegetable oil, and allow that to heat almost until it smokes. Then one large onion, chopped, will go in, along with another teaspoon of kosher salt. Alright, there. Now what we want to do is to let these really brown until the onions are almost chocolate looking right around the edges. It'll take about 12 minutes. ¼ Cup Vegetable Oil

1 Large Onion, Chopped
1 tsp. Kosher Salt

    In the meantime, we'll add another pound of charcoal to our tandoor, and set it for another ten minutes. 2nd Batch
1 Pound All Natural Lump

    Now onto the prep. I'm going to wrap my ginger grater with a little plastic wrap. Why? Because I need a tablespoon of ginger, and this is a much easier way of getting it. [lifts the plastic wrap, and the grated ginger] There, look at this. This is like, my favorite kitchen trick. Hah hah. Now I don't have to wash anything.
    All right, we also need to mince a serrano chili. I like gloves for this because this stuff's pretty potent. Just split it right down the middle, very carefully. And then remove as much of that inner membrane and the seeds as you possibly can, because they've got a lot of heat, but not a whole lot flavor. So I just want that outer portion of the meat. Just carefully cut through that. Watch the fingers. There. And then you can slice it into juliennes, and then cross-cut that into what we call brunoise. Very nice.

    Reduce the heat to medium-low and add four cloves of garlic, minced, to the pan. I figured you knew how to do that. Along with the ginger and the serrano chilies. Just stir that, and continue to cook for about seven minutes or until brown. 4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Tbs. Freshly Grated Ginger
1 Medium Serrano Chile,
    In the meantime, we'll add yet another pound of charcoal to the tandoor and set for another ten minutes. 3rd Batch
1 Pound All Natural Lump
    [back at the pan with the onions] There. Now that's what we're looking for out of the aromatics. Okay, at this point, stir in another tablespoon of your garam masala. Now by adding some of this to the sauce, which is going to cook at a relatively low temperature, and to the meat, which is going to cook at a very very high temperature, you will bring out all of the different dimensions that the masala has to offer. It's a very Indian cuisine thing to do. While you're at it, 28 ounces of diced tomatoes go into the pan. There's going to be a little steam. Just cook this down until it thickens, about 20 minutes. Which is plenty of time to do some skewering. 1 Tbs. Garam Masala

28 Ounces Can Diced

    When choosing skewers for even a small tandoor such as ours, one must consider how skewers cook in a tandoor, which is like this. See, they fit down into the oven.
    Now if our tandoor were actually the size of this bongo, I'd say that these standard issue skewers would give us room to spare. But our tandoor is approximately 8.6 times larger. So we need to super-size our skewers. Check it out. Three sixteenths of an inch wide, 27 inches long, nickel plated steel. These are super skewers, kids. [noticing that they look similar to car dipsticks] And I'd say you're about a quart low. They're excellent for performing tandoor chores, or for general grilling, or repelling the occasional home invader.

While wooden or bamboo skewers are fine for the grill,
don't use them in your tandoor, lest they be reduced to ashes.

The Backyard

    All right, ten minutes is up. It is time to make one final deposit of charcoal into the tandoor. One pound, please. 4th Batch
1 Pound All Natural Lump

The Kitchen

    [indoors, at the refrigerator] Well, the time has come to lance our lamb, ?But of course, yogurt-covered things can be kind of icky to worth with. So you may want to don some disposable examination gloves, available at your local drug store.
    Before I skewer up, I also grab myself some dried pasta. Just something short and wide. Rigatoni for instance. Perfect. I'll show you why in a minute.
    Now just empty everything out of the bag onto a pan, a sheet pan, or cookie sheet. And make sure you get all of the marinade as well. All right, we are ready to skewer. [brandishing the skewer] And I have to tell you, if you have your Good Eats 3-D glasses, now would be the time to put them on. [pokes at the screen as if an exceptional 3D effect were being performed] Yeah, pretty sweet, huh?
    All right, down to business. We want to have maximum meat-skewer contact. So each time you grab a piece of meat, try to go through the longest portion, okay? So just kind of hold it like this, and literally feed it onto the skewer so that you've got something that looks like that. And make sure that, you know, your hand isn't part of the equation, okay?
    Next, a spacer. That means a piece of pasta. This will prevent the meat from getting all squished up on itself and it will cook more evenly this way. It's not absolutely required, but I find it's a nice, handy helper. Pretty clever.

Kitchen at Night

    You know, every year I wait for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. [cut to AB in pajamas waiting for an early morning phone call] So far, nope. No luck, yet.


    [back to skewering] There. Now we're going to have about six to seven pieces on each skewer. I'm looking to get all of this onto four, just like that.

The Backyard

    [at the grill] All right, the time is up. And we're going to take the temperature of the tandoor. And look at that, 835 whopping degrees! We are good to go. Just basically poke those skewers right down into the heat. Don't worry, the venturi created at the top will make sure that the pieces near the handles cook properly. Keep them moving every minute or so until you have a good doneness. With a fire like this, we're probably talking about two and a half minutes of total cooking time. Yes, the bottom pieces will be a little bit charred, but that will add to the overall flavor in the end. There.

    Remove them from the skewers, place in the pan, and then just plop the pan right down on top of the tandoor. A little extra salt to correct for seasoning, and then we're going to add coconut milk, one cup to finish the sauce. And just stir that in. Very nice. 1 Cup Coconut Milk


    [at the table] Serve atop long grain, basmati, or jasmine rice with mint or cilantro. And the way I would deal with that mint is to stack up nine or ten leaves like this and just roll it up like that, and then use a very sharp knife to cut into ribbons. This is called chiffonade. It's a little tougher to do with cilantro, but you can manage. Me, I like the mint better. There, perfect.
    It is only now that our tikka has become, technically, a kari. Now although I prefer lamb, nearly any meat can be a tikka target, including chicken. Boned thighs take especially well to the method.
    Well, as I'm sure you can see, with your garam masala kit in hand, true Indian flavors are always nearby. Of course, building a true Indian pantry will take some time and several more episodes of Good Eats. But at least you know there's one thing you can live without. [shows grocery bought curry powder]
    See you next time.

Kitchen at Night

    [AB continues to sit in his pajamas, fidgeting a bit, waiting for a call from the Nobel Prize Committee, as crickets chirp]

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/28/2010