Curry’s The Word
The word curry, like a smallish, but equally fascinating collection of other words in this bastard linguistic family, has more than one meaning. Born of a mish-mashed lexicon of parents, curry and its brothers and sisters are called homonyms. For anyone trying to learn the English language, they must all, when confronted for the first time, get the biggest of huhs?
Angle, deck, mean, might, rock, row, and not too many others all have multiple personalities and meanings, despite the fact that no matter how and when they pop up, the spelling remains the same for two and sometimes more meanings.
On a weekend in August, when coastal British Columbia and neighbouring Washington state were baking and burning in very “what the heck?” weather, I confronted the curry homonym in two delightful ways. The first was as a verb. Not as in the grooming of a horse with a plastic currycomb, or the thrashing of leather to improve its properties, but in the currying of favour. And in this case, not entirely by someone “ingratiating himself or herself through wimpish, obsequious behaviour.”
The Pan-Pacific Hotel in Seattle had sent me a note suggesting that to celebrate Seafair, the city’s annual summer blowout, I might like to come on down the Yellow Brick Road — or in this case, Interstate I-5 — to the Emerald City, chill out in one of their lovely rooms, be primped and/or pummelled at their Vida spa, taste the fare of the next-door Seastar Restaurant, and as I wished, to observe how Seattle was handling the tail end of the recession. (That last bit was mine. But an economic reading of Nordstrom, Starbucks, the flying fish and chewing gum wall at Pike Place Market — all seemed to be thriving — could certainly be worth the drive.)
Being a fan of Seattle, of homonyms, and all of the above, I also saw acceptance of the invite as an opportunity to again seek out curry the noun. A word that had its delicious roots from the Tamil kari in the sixteenth century, describing “a dish of meat, vegetables, etc. cooked in an Indian-style sauce of strong spices and turmeric and typically served with rice.”
Those of us who regularly kill for curry know that a descriptor like that, while perhaps acceptable for a lean dictionary, hardly gets at the guts of a sauce, a dish, a taste, a state of mind, that over the years has oozed out of its Indian roots in shades of muddy ochre to swamp, in a number of additional colourful guises, all of Asia; crossed oceans and continents to besot all of Britain; become part of the world’s fare everywhere. And a simple Google search can keep you mired in cardamom, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry and mati leaves, mace, nutmeg and turmeric for hours. It is lore that’s full of mystery and a treat to learn.
The tastes that come together to make garam masala and its cousins that beget curries are adaptable to just about any vegetables — though not broccoli, some say — and all kinds of protein. John Howie, the chef-owner of Seastar and other favoured restaurants in and around Seattle, offered a recipe (below) that brings together halibut, that firm, white flatfish of the North Pacific, with a Thai curry powder that you can likely find at any good supermarket. Other firm, white fish will serve as well.
In Rainier Square on Seattle’s Fifth Avenue I met Vommi Krishna Padmanabha, thankfully calling himself V.K., at his Navya Lounge, where we spent an hour together eating his Murgh tikka masala, cubes of chicken breast in an onion tomato sauce. Again, a curry. It was served with basmati rice, baskets of V.K.’s puffy naan bread and washings of India-made Yeti beer. V.K. learned to cook at his childhood home in Bangalore, on the southwest coast of India, and at the age of 26, brought his secrets and his skills to the United States. His zeal for authentic taste will drive Navya on into a brighter future.
At Pike Place Market, I picked up four ounces of curry powder that listed among its ingredients turmeric, coriander, cumin, and “19 other spices and herbs.” I proudly declared its worth as I crossed the border back into Canada.
Like great bread — a new and better loaf is always yet to be discovered — curry’s currying call keeps beckoning. Obsequious or not, it will find you on your next trip to India, on a hot weekend in Seattle, or in the comfort of your own kitchen.