I still remember my first taste of Indian food — chicken tikka masala from the Bombay Peacock Grill in Columbia, Maryland, sometime in the late 1990s. It was love at first bite.
Years later, my passion for Indian cuisine soared when I spent two weeks volunteering in Chennai, India. I got terribly sick halfway through the trip, but an upset stomach couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for eating curry, briyani, and chapati at every opportunity.
I hit the jackpot when I moved to South Africa. There are well over a million ethnic Indians here; Indian food, clothing, and culture pervade society. Since most South African Indians come from families that have been here for many generations, a specialized South African Indian cuisine has developed that you can’t find anywhere else.
I’ve written frequently about South African Indian food and culture. (Check out some older posts here, here, and here.) But today, for the first time, I’m going to write about cooking South African Indian food. I’ve never cooked Indian food in my life and I’ve decided it’s time to start.
I began my South African Indian culinary journey at the Oriental Plaza, the center of Indian culture in Joburg. The Oriental Plaza, which I’ve written about before, is a great place to buy pretty much everything — clothing, fabric, furniture, housewares, and, of course, Indian food.
I visited the Plaza last Saturday with my friends Anita and Johnson, who are accomplished Indian cooks. They took me to their favorite spice shop to buy ingredients.
I was overwhelmed by the selection, but eventually settled on three ingredients: garum masala, chili powder, and a bag of complete chicken curry spice mix. (I bought the last item as a quick fix, just in case I decide I’m not good enough to mix the spices myself.) By combining these spices with some stuff already living at the back of our kitchen cupboard, I figured I could produce chicken curry.
Spice-shopping done, we soaked in the Plaza for a couple of hours.
Note the excitement emanating from Johnson and Anita. They know they are about to feast on the best samoosas in Joburg.
“Samoosa” is not a typo — for some unknown reason it’s spelled with two o’s here. The spelling is different, and the taste is different too. South African samoosas are somehow better than the samosas I’ve had in other countries. My favorite varieties are spinach and cheese, potato, and cheese and onion.
World of Samoosas also serves coconut samoosas, which are great for dessert. Here I am tasting my first coconut samoosa. It was very good, although I prefer the savory varieties. (Photo courtesy of Anita.)
World of Samoosas also offers a “Ramadan special” — five dozen uncooked samoosas for R130 ($25). You can get the special year-round, not just during Ramadan. We bought one and split it — two dozen for me and three dozen for Anita and Johnson. Now I can heat up some samoosas at home (either baked or fried) whenever I want. I’ll try not to eat all two dozen in one sitting.
Okay, enough about samoosas. Back to my culinary adventure.
After we left the Plaza (we wanted to stay forever but all good things must come to an end), we visited the fruit and veg market and the grocery story. I bought free-range chicken thighs, fresh cilantro, and curry leaf. I was ready to cook.
I did some random internet searches. Based on the ingredients I had, I decided to make chicken curry with this recipe and saffron rice using this recipe. I made many substitutions and adjustments according to what was available.
I sliced and chopped and measured out powders. The curry actually wasn’t too hard to cook once I assembled everything on the counter. And I would say my curry wasn’t bad for a first attempt. Spicy and flavorful, although I need to work on melding the different flavors into that cohesive “curriness” that you find at Indian restaurants.
My curry photo, unlike the curry itself, is horrible. I couldn’t take a good shot to save my life. (Obviously Joe was not around for this photo session. Joe, I apologize in advance for the picture below.)
I’m sure there’ll be lots more Indian cooking to come in the Lucky 5 Star Curry House.