How I Found My Place in My Family’s Curry Legacy
My dad makes a homemade curry powder that is famed among our family and friends. Having watched him make it, I know it’s a labor of love. He carefully selects the spices from the jars, each lined up in the kitchen, waiting for their moment. The next step is toasting the spices, before finally grinding them in his designated electric spice grinder. You would not want to accidentally grind your coffee in it. It is decidedly not repurposable no matter how much washing goes into it. The grinding has to happen in a very specific way, or it’s all over, or so he claims. He used to be of the mortar and pestle ilk but, alas, he’s succumbed begrudgingly, to “new” technology.
His curry powder is his own invention. Like any good (and frustrating) family recipe, he goes by sight and smell, not grams or teaspoons.
When I was feeling confident in my cooking abilities, a few months ago, I asked him to send me some, which he promptly did. And then I let it sit on the shelf as my insecurities about cooking grew and grew. It is one thing to know all the steps necessary, but quite another to carry them out.
I grew up watching him cook all sorts of complicated dishes. He was born and raised in Hong Kong. Thus, he has a knack for making perfectly crisp pan-fried noodles, expertly tossed and seasoned fried rice, and so much more I can’t even begin to describe without feeling ashamed of my own cooking.
He is also famed for his black bean chicken, Balinese pork, gochujang shrimp, and of course, curries: both Thai and Indian. The man can do it all. And if we’re being truthful here, his American dishes are wonderful, too. Even as a pescatarian, I crave the burgers, steaks, and chicken cutlets he made me as a kid. I have a distinct memory of watching “Father of the Bride” and eating one of the best burgers of my lifetime; sort of an apt movie, I guess.
His love of cooking has definitely influenced mine. However, I’m not sure his deftness with a knife, or talent, has been passed down. I’ve seen the time and effort he puts into all his cooking, but particularly Indian dishes. His chana masala takes a solid few hours to prep, cook, and simmer. At the moment, I just don’t have the patience for it.
But, haunted by the curry powder, sitting innocently on the shelf, a seed was planted inside me. Each time I passed it to grab some other seasoning, it served as a reminder of my failure as a (half) Indian woman who longs to be a better cook.
Last week I finally said fuck it. I’ve been using his homemade chai spice blend he left behind for my tea every morning — why not give the curry powder a try? My work meals were getting stale and I was feeling unusually confident. Quinoa, black beans, and veggies can be delicious, but I was using the same tired seasoning.
I decided to ease myself into it. I could make the same veggies and quinoa I always do, but instead of black beans, I could use paneer, an Indian cheese that looks like tofu but has a harder texture, and then throw the curry powder in it. I didn’t have to do things the proper way, by sweating the onions forever, letting it simmer for an hour, adding stock and tomato puree. I could do it the quick, easy, and dirty way — throw it all together and hope for the best.
And it worked. Of course, my dad’s lovingly cooked, simmered-forever daal, chana masala, and whatever else is much more delicious. But my haphazard veggie-paneer mix, a hearty and easy dish, wasn’t too bad. Now that I’ve used it once, I’m not so intimidated.
I’ve conquered the curry powder. I can go on to use it for my bastardized version of curry, or I can use it when I have time to put in the effort and make something from scratch. It would be an honor to one day learn the secret of how the curry powder is made. But, until then, I’ll be waiting patiently for my curry mail.
Natasha Dadlani is a culture writer in Northern California. Her work usually focuses on food, television, and critical race analysis of media.