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.
The Masala Centre, one of countless Indian spice shops in Joburg. More on this shop later.
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.
Behold. The Plaza. This is actually just one section of it. The Plaza covers several blocks.
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.
The inside of the Masala Centre, the outside of which is pictured above.
Johnson chats with the proprietor of the Masala Centre.
Yummy-looking stuff. I’m not sure what masala figs are but I wish I’d bought some.
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.
This photo has nothing to do with food. I just really love this clothing shop.
A Plaza visit is not complete without lunch at World of Samoosas. This place is legendary, as you can tell from the mob of people surrounding the counter.
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.
Hmm. I thought this would be simple.
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.
I recently found your blog and am loving reading about your adventures in and around Jo-burg through the eyes of an American. I left SA (for the US) 25 years ago and am still trying to find a decent samOOsa over here! I couldn’t agree with you more that the S. African samoosas can’t be beat. I’m looking forward to returning to SA for a holiday so that I can explore many of the venues that you’ve written about and that I have never visited … despite growing up there!
Hi Jill, thanks so much for your comment and I’m glad you agree with me about the samoosas. Where in the US are you living?
Currently in Pittsburgh, PA. Spent ten years in St Louis, MO (which I still miss – although initially never thought I ever would; we arrived there in a winter snow-storm – that was just too “foreign” for me! )
Pittsburgh is a great town! I’m originally from Baltimore so I’m a big Ravens fan — love the rivalry with the Steelers 🙂
I adore Indian food – lucky you to have such a fabulous array of spices at your fingertips!
I am indeed lucky. The abundance of Indian cuisine was one of the most pleasant surprises I experienced when I moved here.
The big chunk in the last photo is Potato? Here in South India ( I live in a city by name Bangalore which is almost 6 hours drive from Chennai) we slice potatoes in smaller pieces. If you are looking to cook the best chicken curry, get the recipe of Hyderabad Chicken Curry.
Hi Joshi, yes, the big chunk is potato. I wish I had cut them into smaller pieces too — the recipe didn’t specify so I kind of just threw them in without thinking. Next time! Thanks for the recommendation on Hyderabad curry. I will check it out. Hope you’re well! -Heather
Your curry does look yummy! The spice market would be Willie’s idea of heaven. 🙂
You should try making Chicken Tikka Masala – it’s really easy to make and really good. My favourite of the curry dishes.
It’s my favorite too! Maybe that will be next.
Wow, that looks delicious, Heather! I too love Indian food and loved it even more having spent two weeks in Delhi last year! And chicken tikka masala is my favorite!
Thanks, Kathy. And by the way, your palette must not be as boring as you say if you love Indian food!
Looks great, Heather! Cooking a new cusine is often more daunting in the mind than in the event! There’s a great old Scots saying that is apt here, “Ye caint get the larning without the doing” Enjoy the journey, come to think of it we are all enjoying it! Keep it going, and thanks!
That Johnson character looks a bit dodgy. Be careful around him.
Also, we’re glad you guys are keeping in touch.
Yeah, he is a bit suspicious. Also kind of loud and overbearing.
Seriously though, thanks for making that intro. Life in Melville wouldn’t be the same without Anita and Johnson! And I would probably be really out of shape if it weren’t for their boxing bags.
Hi! i must say, i totally love your blog! I’m SAn and have yet again made a move to another faraway country… and your blog is keeping me from feeling terribly homesick! Thanks for sharing!
That’s a very nice thing to read, Yashik. So glad you like the blog and thanks for commenting.
Hi, actually… i’ve been reading your blog on & off for a few hours now… and i see that you have been giving solace to so many! and your blog’s proving to be a really nice window to life in SA! we share 2 interests – pizza and indian food! and I thought i’d recommend Ghazal in Bryanston. http://www.ghazal.co.za the food is delicious, and the setting is nice (admittedly different from Fordsburg though). Would be good to book ahead, as they get busy!
Thanks for the recommendation! Will definitely check it out the next time I’m near Bryanston.