A compendium of curry | Cookup

From Jamaican goat to Trini doubles, curry is one of the definitive flavours of the Caribbean. There are hundreds of curry blends around the world — what are the Caribbean’s best, and how are they evolving? Franka Philip finds out

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

One of my most mind-blowing food experiences ever was years ago at an Indian restaurant in Southall, West London. It was the first time I tried Indian food in Britain, and I wasn’t prepared for the depth of flavour the chefs at Madhu’s served up that Saturday afternoon.

The korma and jalfrezi were far more complex than Trinidad curry — the taste defined by the Turban or Chief curry powder used religiously at home. Some of the flavours I had that afternoon took a bit of getting used to, but after that, I was game for trying more of the great spread of curries available in the UK.

Most Indo-Caribbean people can trace their origins to the Subcontinent’s northern region of Uttar Pradesh. Indians started arriving in the Caribbean in the mid nineteenth century as replacement labour for enslaved Africans after Emancipation. However, because of the strictures of indentureship and the unavailability of some spices and herbs, Indo-Caribbean cuisine retained some traditional elements while also, over time, evolving into a style of its own.

“There are hundreds of curries all around the world,” says scientist and curry gourmand Brian Singh. “Our curries tend to be heavy on turmeric and garam masala.” In other cultures, curries incorporate ingredients like coconut milk, lemongrass, and different chillies. Singh points to Malaysia, where curries typically use tamarind and shrimp paste. A Trinidadian based in Vanuatu, in the Pacific, Singh does have many plaudits for the curries of the Caribbean. “Jamaican goat curry is brilliant,” he says. “They use a lot of warm spices which go well with the gaminess of the goat.”

Around the world, Jamaican goat curry, like jerk chicken, has become synonymous with Caribbean cuisine. In the UK, for example, festivals like Notting Hill Carnival are also a showcase for Caribbean food. It’s not unusual for revellers and spectators to eat thousands of plates of the sumptuous delicacies at food stalls along the parade route.

The toughest parts of the goat are used for this recipe: they are seasoned and left overnight to marinate, then cooked low and slow to achieve a fall-off-the-bone tenderness. Well-travelled Trinidadian journalist Wesley Gibbings also gives Jamaican goat curry the thumbs up. “They prepare a luscious dish that is hardly uniform across the island, but all equally delicious. Contrary to some belief, the Jamaicans have a heavy hand with the spices and pepper, so don’t fool yourself into believing that extra spicy is anything near our light version of pepper.”

Gibbings believes that, as far as the rest of the Caribbean goes, you’re likely to get the best curry in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. “I can’t think of another place where I have had a curry duck and paratha that match Trini style the way the Surinamese prepare it. It is just the right mix of spice and the earthy flavour that makes curry stand apart from other ways of preparing meat and vegetable dishes.”

Gibbings is less impressed with curry in other parts of the Caribbean. “The Eastern Caribbean islands do not yet understand the concept of curry,” he says, “except where Trinis or Guyanese have set up shop. In Antigua you get a good balance between the two styles, but in St Lucia, except for the guy who set up shop near Rodney Bay recently, we may conclude that the idea of what constitutes a good curry meal is a rather vague one.

“In Sint Maarten,” Gibbings adds, “the Guyanese there have made sure you enjoy fairly authentic stuff, but don’t hold your breath in Barbados, where there is an arguably equal share of Trini and Guyanese influences. Perhaps the good stuff is in the homes of such expats.”

 

And what is the future for Caribbean curry? Both Singh and Gibbings believe that there’s a lot of potential, especially with the growth of street food as a big attraction for foodies everywhere. Trinidad’s doubles — a delicacy made with curried chickpeas and two flatbreads called barras — is already practically a national dish. There have been several recent experiments with doubles, like gourmet versions where different kinds of meat are added. There’s also been an attempt to combine Chinese and Indian elements in a delicacy called “chubbles.” Rather than barras, Chinese pancakes are used. Beyond the novelty factor, “chubbles” was a short-lived experiment, as the creators never quite got the flavour balance right.

Singh feels the “chubbles” experiment is a natural progression, “an expression of our cosmopolitanism.” Gibbings meanwhile has a few tips for chefs about how to take curry forward. “I would say the added coconut of Tobagonian fare is the right way to go, and cooks should ease up a bit on the chadon beni”  — a herb similar to coriander or cilantro, widely used in Trinidadian cooking — “and other green seasoning. I think the overuse of pepper has its fans, but I am not one, since I just love to have the curry taste mixed in with lightly seasoned goat or duck linger for some time after I have swallowed the last mouthful.”

And Singh believes chefs must become more innovative. “We have to take the basic tenets of the cuisine, build, and innovate. We don’t have that much high-end curry in the region, and with a bit of passion, a lot can be achieved. Maybe chefs could try using different condiments,” Singh suggests. “In India, chefs use pickles to get a balance of hot, sour, sweet, and salty. Like a good symphony, curry is a beautiful mixture of flavours.”

 

Surinamese curried chicken

Ingredients:

1 whole chicken, cut in small pieces
5 cloves garlic, chopped
½ onion, sliced
1 tomato or 1 tsp tomato paste
3 tsp curry or masala powder
2 bouillon cubes
black pepper
salt
1 tbs parsley or celery, finely chopped
1 fresh pepper (optional)
3 tbs oil
1 cup water

Rinse the chicken and drain. Heat the oil and add the onion and garlic. Stir frequently, adding the tomato, bouillon cubes, curry powder, and fresh pepper. Mix thoroughly until tomato is almost dissolved. Add the chicken and turn over to cover with curry mix. Add some black pepper and salt if necessary. Lower temperature and cover the pan, cooking the chicken for about 10 minutes before turning it over.

The chicken should produce its own liquid. If not, add 1/2 cup of water and let it simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes. When the meat is done (30 to 45 minutes), turn off the heat and sprinkle the parsley or celery on the chicken. Curried chicken is served with roti, vegetables, and curried potatoes. You can also eat it with steamed rice.

From multiculticooking.com