I grew up with bland food. The only reason for the packet of mild curry powder in my mother's pantry was to lightly season bobotie or offal.
My family are the most unadventurous eaters in the universe, with the palates of turtles. Salt, pepper and coriander were the extent of their taste spectrum. Was it the poverty of the Bushmanland or simply the existence on remote farms and the distance from shops? Or maybe my great-grandparents' Dutch origins?
Writers, books and hot food
I was almost an adult before I first tasted what the people of my world would call “brand kos" (food that burns your mouth).
It was my very first job, an internship at Tafelberg Publishers in the late 90s. Imagine, dear reader. Me, in the highest platform shoes imaginable and the shortest dress, making my way there from the taxi rank at the Golden Acre, tripping over the cobblestones of Greenmarket Square.
I was so excited to just be in the building where writers and books happen that I didn't even care that I mostly made tea for author Riana Scheepers and picked up her laundry. I might have had a bit of a crush on her too, but it's hard to say, because the combination of tons of books, famous authors in the hallways and my newfound freedom made everything feel abnormally fuzzy and fantastical.
One evening, Riana and poet Daniel Hugo took a few of us out to Bukhara, the North Indian restaurant next to our offices. To this day I feel waves of shame sweeping over me when I recall what an ingenue I was. A few months before that evening, I rode an escalator for the first time and ate my first pizza. And here I was now sitting a few metres from an open kitchen where men deftly slid pieces of dough that looked like racquets into and out of a burning oven.
Riana ordered for us and copper bowls of food, racquet breads and all kinds of sauces arrived. Is there curry in heaven? I suspect so, because from the first bite it felt like the Rapture. Where before I could only see black and white, suddenly there was a rainbow. The whole experience left me clammy, half out of breath and flushed. At one point I had to go and wash my face in the bathroom because I had unsuspectingly eaten a mouthful or two of freshly cut green chillies which were so fiery that my soul temporarily left my body.
Beckoning something bigger
The taste awakening of that night is one of my core memories. Food was suddenly beckoning something bigger and more exciting.
Until that moment, cooking had been half sad and dull: a reluctant, alone-in-front-of-the-stove, thankless toil. Alongside anything that might make me a housewife, like wedding dresses and children, I had no interest in them.
A year later, I found myself in another country with friends who taught me to make dahl. And the rest is history.
When it comes to cooking, curry will always be my first love. Moreover, it is impossible to be sad or lonely when the aromas of exotic spices fill your kitchen.
Paneer and cauliflower curry
If you can't find paneer cheese, you can use tofu. Sometimes, instead of the paneer, I use two potatoes, cut into cubes, which I fry together with the cauliflower.
- 60 g blanched almonds or raw cashews
- ½ cup ghee, butter or olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 2 teaspoons of turmeric
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 cm ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 green chilli, chopped without seeds
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 cauliflower
- 250 g paneer cheese
1. Cover the nuts with a cup of boiling water and set aside.
2. Fry the onion in a few tablespoons of ghee until golden brown.
3. Remove the black seeds from the cardamom pods and grind them finely together with cumin, coriander and turmeric in a mortar.
4. Add half of the mixture in the mortar together with the cinnamon to the onions and fry for a minute. Then add the ginger, chilli and tomatoes and stir-fry for 10 minutes.
5. Pulse the nuts with water and the fried onion mixture until fine with an immersion blender or a juicer.
6. Let it simmer until thick and fragrant. Season to taste with salt. Cut the paneer cheese into blocks and pack them into the sauce.
7. Mix the cauliflower with the rest of the spices in the mortar and fry it in the remaining ghee until golden brown.
8. Serve the fried cauliflower on top of the paneer curry.
♦ VWB ♦
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