My last supper meal is a chicken curry. Chicken curry made by my mum is what I want to eat one last time before they send me on my way. It is the meal that I long for when I have been away and it is the food that opens up so much feeling that I wonder if I will break. This has as much to do with the dish as it has to do with the setting, the feeling and the people. I long for mum’s cooking because it means I will be where the sky is limitless and the ocean blue, the garden in full bloom, the daylight stretching into the evening where we can sit and talk for hours on end about what we have been up to. My father will be there with aperitifs to begin, then wine, followed by whiskey while the moon rises higher and we look up, hoping that the stars will shimmer. My wife, my sisters, brother-in-law, nephew, niece are there too, maybe a cousin, all feasting on a banquet whose centrepiece is chicken curry. If I am eating that, I will get to live a little longer in the best way possible.
I was born and raised in the suburb of Wembley in Western Australia. That was where we lived, went to school, had our friends, played sport, watched movies, read, took music lessons, and ate. My parents home is an old bungalow that my dad renovated with the help of friends – the wood was reclaimed from demolition sites all over Perth and, as you walk in, the house opens up to a kitchen, dining and living area in a wide open space. The centre of the house is where we cook and eat, and one is immediately drawn to a table that can comfortably seat sixteen.
Growing up, my father would cook twice a week and he had a memorable roster of dishes – chicken wings, pork vindaloo, cheese on toast, scrambled eggs, and his piece de resistance, osso buco, of which he was immeasurably proud. Cooking was never relaxing for him, he could never flow in the kitchen, but he had a go. On the other hand, mum set a high standard for anyone else to follow. She used to run a catering business, and, on special occasions, she would make chocolate eclairs, curry puffs, sausage rolls, profiteroles, cakes shaped like rockets or swimming pools or teddy bears. During the week though, we had a routine in what we ate – fresh pasta for Tuesday dinner because the store was next to where my sister trained for netball; school canteen on Wednesday lunch where I always got a choc milk; take out on Friday night because it was the end of school and work. These are stories I imagine many Australians of my generation can relate to. What was less common was that we ate fish twice a week and curry twice a week as well.
Growing up, we ate all kinds of curries – pork, lamb, beef, fish, potato, cauliflower, beans, egg, lentils, eggplant. There were rarer occasions when we had South Indian specialties – putu, a breakfast dish that is somewhere between gelatinous rice and couscous, which you eat with banana and sugar, or fish curry and pepper water depending on your mood; appam, a crispy yet spongy pancake like the marriage of a crepe and injira that you have on the side of everything or simply with an egg cooked into the middle; aluwa, a sticky, sweet desert that is like a combination of dulche de leche and fudge toffee that takes hours to cook and is truly a group effort.
But for all these dishes, curry was the heartbeat of our kitchen. My grandparents lived with us until they died when I was ten. They migrated late in life from Singapore to join their children, who had come to Australia many years prior at the end of the White Australia Policy. With them in the house, our taste was shaped by their South Indian upbringing and their South East Asian experience. We would often marvel at how much rice my papa could eat in one sitting. But they encouraged us to eat everything from char kway teow to curry laksa to roast lamb with mint sauce to cucumber and sambal sandwiches to croissants with homemade jam. They were open, tolerant people and knew that to refuse anyone’s cuisine only hurt one’s self. You were the one missing out on great food and great people.
For all the curries we ate, chicken curry was my favourite. I hear you ask, why not fish which South Indians do so well? I ask myself that question now partly because my taste began to shift after living in Kerala. While I was there I fell in love with seafood even more, craving the polichattu where they grill fish with tomato and spices in a banana leaf over hot coals; or the moilee that elevates prawns and coconut milk into a fragrant delicacy that rivals everything else; or the simple fish fry that is exactly what it sounds like but is mixed with secret herbs and spices. Seafood is what I love now, but chicken curry is my madeleine dish. Of all the dishes we ate as children, it opens me up more than any other food. I have memories of it that sit in my body, mind and spirit. It tells me about my self the way very few foods do.
For most of my childhood in Wembley, we had chickens. They lived in a coop in the backyard but would free range all over the place during the day. Each morning, we would check to see if they had laid eggs and feed them scraps from the bucket that sat on the bench next to the toaster. I loved those chooks. They were our pets and lived so very far from the dining room table, so much so that we never gave a thought to what we ate. I no longer have chickens, and neither do my parents even though they live in the same house. But, I still eat meat and am happy with that choice especially because I consume only a minimum of organic, ethical kinds.
Chicken in my childhood home was a treat. We ate it on Christmas wrapped in bacon and stuffed with brown rice, cashews, dried apricots and mint. We ate it on Sunday, roasted with rosemary and lemon with potatoes that were crispy and peas that were mushy. We ate it at picnics in sandwiches with avocado and mayonnaise. It was not everyday meat for us, and I do not know if anything was except for ham, which made its way into our school lunches. But, I was always fond of chicken because that was my favourite curry.
When one makes a curry, it is not only the curry one must attend to. You have to think about the side dishes – rice is non-negotiable even though appam, roti paratha and chapatis sometimes get you through; dhal is always there, made from red lentils in my house with potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, curry leaves, spices; and there are a range of vegetarian dishes, my favourite of which is avial, a mix of vegetables thick with coconut. This is to say nothing of smaller accoutrements like tomatoes and onions; cucumber and yoghurt; mashed fried eggplant; chutneys; and chilli sauce.
The next question you have to answer is what kind of curry do I want, and that depends on ingredients you have with you. It will also depend on the cook. My mother makes my favourite chicken curry, but she has seven sisters who each make it their own way. Some use more coconut milk, others use cinnamon, some are salty, some add a little more lemon juice at the end, sometimes they cook it dry, some fry the spices in coconut oil, which my elder sister took to after living in New Delhi for a while. There are so many options to consider in making chicken curry your own way. It is infinite and that is its inherent appeal. It can become so many dishes even with the same ingredients. I love knowing that it will change each and every day.
My mother’s chicken curry, or the favourite one that I long for when I am away, is a simple one. You need a whole chicken that you cut into individual pieces – each of these should have some bone in it, even the breast. This helps keep the chicken moist, but it also makes sense given that we eat with our hands at home and need something to grab onto. For spices, you need turmeric, cumin, coriander, chilli, all ground to a fine powder and fresh as you can get them. After living in India, we wondered why the food there tasted so much better. It has to do with the relationship of the produce to the terroir, with how fresh the spices are, just like how mozzarella tastes the best in Italy or corn comes in so many varieties in Peru. That is why Indian food tastes so good there. This is not to consider that it is appropriate for the place and the climate, the pace of life, and the tendency to share meals in large numbers with extended family and friends so you can have several dishes that combine into a harmonious feast. Here at home, sometimes we have relatives bring us spices from Singapore, or we re-stock when we come back from overseas our selves.
Once you have your spices, you will also need aromatic garlic, pungent onions, juicy ginger, ripe tomatoes, fresh lemon juice and curry leaves. These are all things you can find in your pantry, or maybe your garden in the right season. The difficult thing to find for the Australian pantry is curry leaves but you can get them in the fridge of Asian groceries. And, curry leaves grow well in most places – we even have some down at Redgate that have lived through frosts in winter to produce a fine crop of leaves. Please note this is not a curry plant, but a tree that you use the leaves of. These are, for many people, a kind of secret ingredient – wonderfully fragrant, inviting, subtle and add a depth of flavour that tastes wonderful, as secret but as known as an anchovy in a bolognese to add umami. Whatever the case, the quality of the ingredients matters for the outcome of the chicken curry. To make this chicken curry is to respect the culture, is to respect the mother, is to get the heartland flavour.
You need a heavy bottom, deep, fry pan though we have clay pots we bought from the side of the road last time we were in Kerala. If you cannot find that bloke, just see how you go. First, choose your oil. You can use coconut or something neutral like grapeseed, then heat it on a medium flame and fry the onions, garlic, ginger until they brown a little; then add equal parts of cumin, coriander and turmeric with a half portion of chilli powder; fry this until the aroma comes up; you might even cough a little. That is a good sign. Put in the tomatoes (not too much) and bring it together, then add the chicken, brown the skin a little, add some water, cover the dish, turn down the flame and wait. You could mix the water with coconut milk, but the choice is yours. Cook it until it is done.
That is how you make a chicken curry.
You will have noticed in the short account above that there are no proportions. I have not said one tablespoon of cumin, three tablespoons of oil. That is the alchemy of curry – you have to find balance yourself, a balance that makes sense for your palate, one that tastes good to you and your guests. You might find that balance by cooking your curry leaves with your spices like some do, or it might come by adding them in later when the liquid goes in. You might like to fry your chicken first and begin to crisp up the skin only to add it back into the gravy to finish cooking. You might choose not to add salt and pepper at the end, or the squeeze of lemon, though I would highly recommend it. These decisions are the beauty and the secret of cooking curry.
I think my mother’s chicken curry is the best partly because of who she is and what she means to me. But she had a mother too, who my family talk fondly of. My grandmother was truly the source of so much food and culture. My white father particularly loved how she took him in and gave to him an understanding of India. She was a proud woman with a fierce and charming character, the counterpoint to my quiet grandfather, who spent his last days bereft without her. I have memories from my youth that allow me to think back fondly of what she cooked for us and how we sat at the table in Wembley listening to papa, having him educate us on manners, politics, culture. To me, and this is only because of how I know them, their greatest gift to the world was their children who have shared with me a love of food as an opening out to life in the largest sense of that word.
Growing up, there were times when I struggled with my identity and chicken curry was part of that. Although I loved to eat it at home, sitting down with a thermos at school to have it as leftovers was a little difficult when everyone else was eating vegemite sandwiches. For the most part, I liked being a fish out of water, was proud of who I was and what that meant. And, I always had friends and curious bystanders who wanted a taste of what I was eating. Yet at times I wanted to know where was my place in the world? Who was like me? What did I want to be? Everyone asks those questions, not only people who come from diverse backgrounds and we answer them in different ways. Some find sustenance in food, others in family, still others in books. I have found it in all three, which is not that different from when I grew up and was looking for answers.
I was lucky to come of age in a sweet spot of multiculturalism, when Paul Keating was talking about reconciliation, the republic, our place in the region, who we were and what we wanted to become. It was an intoxicating vision to me. He will always be a hero of mine, just like Whitlam, who let my mum into the country, and Bob Brown for being ahead of his time. This holds true regardless of their complexities and their failings. As a child, it felt like Keating allowed me to have a place in Australia, and that fact cannot be cherished enough after Pauline Hanson arrived. In that later time, people would abuse my mum on the street and call up our house to tell us to fuck off back to where we came from. Keating was the kind of person who would have a go at chicken curry when Hanson would scoff at the very thought of it.
But that is only one part of the story – I did not grow up in the abstract, did not grow up in the body politic, but in a home in the suburbs with family who loved and cherished me, who fed and clothed me, who gave me a library and encouraged my writing. That was as much a part of coming of age as the marches and the speeches, the things history books look for and remember. As an adult, I have travelled to Singapore, where mum grew up, and further back to India, where our family comes from. My wife has fallen in love with Bombay and I like being there as the gears of world history change our direction in the coming century, or so we like to think. Eating chicken curry is part of that, part of who I am and the world I live in.