She loved us through her food – thinking of my Gran
I often hear people mentioning enjoying a curry when the weather turns colder, as it has in South Africa. I grew up in a house where any weather was curry weather, all year round.
Natal summers, especially where my grandparents lived along the Durban coast were and are, uncomfortably hot. Balmy, if you’d like a more romantic spin on things.
I recall days in December, the air thick with humidity, and my brother and I eating stringy mangoes and plump litchis from my grandparent’s garden, the sticky juice dripping down our chins and elbows. Often lunch would be a hot chicken or lamb curry with huge melting potatoes and peas, the kind that’s best eaten with rice or roti or even soft white bread (the government loaves that my gran bought were just fine for us).
We drank bottles of Creras cool drink, similar to Cape Town’s Bashews that my grandparents bought in crates and stored in the bedroom that I shared with my parents when we were visiting. My brother and I marveled at those crates stacked one on top of the other and how they emptied as the week progressed and the house received an endless stream of guests. No invitations or calls were made in advance. People (friends, neighbours, family members) popped in and were welcomed with icy cold Creras (the clear creme soda and naartjie flavours were my favourite), ice cubes tinkling against the side of glasses wet with condensation.
Brows were wiped often with neatly pressed cotton handkerchiefs.
A cold drink was followed by my grandmother bringing out two bowls of curry (one meat, one vegetable), rice and pickles. Visitors sat at the table with simple plates, never cutlery and ate together.
Only now do I understand the pride my grandmother must have felt sharing her food with these people, feeding them, fussing over them. She was expressing love through food. A guest who could not stay long and who she knew would not be able to visit again for a while, was sent away with a Tupperware of snacks, pickles, a roti roll or sometimes even a slip of a plant they had admired in the garden.
Having lived under a Group Areas Act and having no formal education of their own, my grandparents had lived under very trying conditions. Isn’t it amazing that the life I lead is so privileged by comparison, yet I find the very same pleasure my grandmother did in serving a curry and rice to people who visit our home? A pleasure in loving them through my food.
For all its complications, life’s simplest pleasures are really the most rewarding.
While I don’t associate curries with just winter, I understand that they are better suited to colder weather. Here I share a healthy recipe for lamb curry similar in flavour to my grandmother’s, but without the oil she added (oh yes, it was more than just a glug). It’s simpler that you think and can be cooked in just over an hour, depending on the lamb you use and how fast you prepare the ingredients.
Note: a traditional Durban curry will be made in a reduced onion and tomato based, fiery sauce. This version that involves marinading the meat in a mixture of herbs, garlic, ginger and chilli is usually used to make the curry base for pilaf or biryani (breyani). It is also a version made by my mother and grandmother, that I love the most.
In the last month I’ve made a number of lamb curries, mostly for friends and guests and have not had the time to fiddle with taking pretty pictures. In any event, you will also be so enticed by the aroma you’ll find it pretty difficult to stop before you tuck in.
8 Servings (generous)
1,5 kg lamb pieces
For the marinade
15 g mint
15 g coriander, with stalks
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 medium spring onion, sliced
I T fresh ginger, grated
1 large green chilli or 2 medium chillis
1/2 lime or small lemon, juiced
2 T water, more if needed
2 T olive oil
1 medium onion or 1/2 large onion, sliced
2 fresh or dry bay leaves, medium
1 large cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 T curry leaves (fresh is best if you can get)
1 star anise
4 green cardamom pods
3 medium, firm tomatoes (blanched in hot water for 45 seconds, refreshed & skin peeled off), chopped.
1 t cumin
4-6 t medium or hot masala (your preference)
1/2 t turmeric
5-6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters or smaller
2 t garam masala
1 cup water, plus extra
3/4 cup frozen peas removed from freezer
salt to taste
1. Blend all the marinade ingredients (listed before the oil), together with a hand held blender (or pound in pestle and mortar). Coat lamb well with this fragrant green paste and leave to marinate in a covered bowl overnight in the fridge. If you don’t have the time, leave to marinate for an hour, at least.
2. Add oil to pan and fry onions on medium heat till translucent and starting to brown slightly.
3. Add bay leaves, curry leaves, cardamom, star anise and cloves.
4. Add cumin, masala and turmeric and stir for 3 seconds. Take care not to burn the spices. Add a little more oil if needed and turn temperature down.
5. Add the chopped tomatoes and stir. Cook for a few minutes, up to 10 until the tomatoes thicken and form a paste with the onions and spices. Add a splash of water if necessary. OR you could add the tomatoes after you add the meat. I use both interchangeably.
6. Add marinated meat using a pair of thongs, leaving any liquid that may have formed at bottom of bowl behind. Stir well to coat in spices and onion mixture. Cook for 5 minutes, then turn heat up to medium.
7. Add potatoes, salt and 1/2 cup of water and cook with the lid on for 25 minutes, stirring now and then.
8. Replenish with 1/2 glass of water if necessary and cook for further 25 minutes with the lid on, lowering the heat.
9. Cook on low for last 15 minutes without the lid. Add garam masala in last 10 minutes of cooking and mix well.
10. Add peas in last 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning and ensure all potatoes are cooked through (note: a softer variety may require a shorter cooking time and vice versa).
If the meat hasn’t softened to your liking, keep cooking on low heat, stirring and make sure the potatoes don’t break up.
11. Depending on how thick you like the gravy, you may add a few tablespoons of water, taking care not to make the curry watery.
Serve with fresh coriander, basmati rice and sambals, achar or pineapple salsa.