The chilly evenings of early autumn will always remind me of the anxiety I had as a child of going back to school. It meant giving up the beach and those endless days with nothing to do but swim and read. Our sun-tanned teacher would go around asking us about our vacations and I would tell her about Moby Dick and Tintin and Sherlock Holmes. I look back on the last few months of reading on the beach, now with no one to answer to, and ask myself what I have learned.
The season passed at its usual pace, as I lolled about on the same beaches, thumbing through the occasional cooking magazine in the spirit of summer reading. June’s edition of Dancyu was dedicated to Japanese curry, playing out as a kind of remedial crash-course, a chance to study before its high season in the winter. Entitled Curry School, the issue had a kind of scholarly tone to it, presenting the history of curry as one of the world’s first truly global foods.
It called to mind an argument I had once with an English woman who claimed curry as part of her country’s culinary heritage. “Nonsense,” I replied, “Curry is Indian.” Paper cups of wine were being passed around and I dug my heels in, not ready to admit otherwise. She was, as it turns out, completely right—those heavily spiced stews of meat known as curry, when ordered at restaurants in America and the UK are different from those of the Indian subcontinent. South Asian dishes have always been formed with their own culinary techniques, and blends of spices that rarely take the name of “curry.” Dancyu takes the story back to the early colonial days, when British sailors found the abundant spices of South Asia like cumin, coriander, and dried ginger useful in preventing spoilage of their already barely-edible stews. These spices were immortalized in curry powder, a packaged blend now commonplace in groceries around the world. Simple stews of meat and potatoes, made on the distinctly European foundations of mirepoix and thickened with roux, became curries, like gumbo in Louisiana, neither one thing nor the other.
Following curry’s international voyage to the end of the issue, I remembered those exercises that followed reading passages in school textbooks. My assignment, it was clear, would be to create a curry that could bridge the seasons—light enough for the lingering beach days, but just rich enough to warm the chill of autumn nights. My tastes demanded the flavors of the traditional Japanese curry I grew up with, but on the base of a seafood stock that brings it closer to Thailand. A garnish of cilantro and lime at the end gives the dish a tropical bite that cuts through the richness of the spices—the perfect ease from summer into fall. A lesson well learned.
1 lb shrimp, heads on
1 liter water
2 medium onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, minced
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp S&B curry powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp orange marmalade or apricot jam
1 cup frozen peas (optional)
salt, to taste
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
First, clean the shrimp and make the stock: peel and head the shrimp, collecting the shells and heads in a large saucepan. Add a liter of water to the shells, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 40 minutes to an hour. Meanwhile, devein the shrimp by slicing along the back and removing any dark veins in the center of the shrimp. Set the shrimp aside. When the stock is ready, strain out the shells and skim off any pink foam on top.
In a dutch over or stock pot, heat a couple tablespoons of butter or oil over medium heat and saute the onions until soft, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and saute for a couple minutes more, until fragrant. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside. Then, make the roux: melt 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat and slowly add the flour, stirring constantly with a whisk. Continue to whisk the mixture until it begins to darken into a blonde color, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, add in the tomato paste and spices, and continue to whisk it all together. Add a ladle of stock to the roux, continuing to whisk, then continue to ladle the rest of the stock into the roux. Add the sauteed vegetables and the marmalade to the curry, bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, then turn the heat down and lightly simmer for at least 30 minutes, until it has thickened and begun to reduce. At the very end, add the shrimp and the peas, if using, and cook for only a minute or two more, until the shrimp are just cooked through. Add salt, at least a teaspoon or two, to taste.
To serve, ladle the curry sauce and shrimp over a bowl of rice, and garnish with cilantro and a few drops of lime.
Jeffrey Ozawa is a writer and cook living in Chicago. His blog, Gorumando, explores life’s pleasures through food.
(Photo: Jaimie Lewis of Machins Choses)