My husband was born in Hyderabad, India, which is in the Southern part of the country. While most of India can get really steamy in the summer months, South India gets hella hot, and their cuisine reflects that. I don’t know why it is that the hotter the city, the spicier the food, but a lot of Asian countries are like that, and India is no exception. South Indian food can range from zingy to absolutely incendiary.
My husband’s mother has always had a heavy hand with the spice when she makes her curries. When my husband was little, if he ever complained about the spice level in his dinner, his mother would roll her eyes and scoff.
“It’s not too hot,” she’d retort. “You’re too weak.”
When my husband told me that story, I had to laugh. It wasn’t until I actually tasted her cooking that I realized the accuracy of that statement, and I actually like my Indian food spicier than my husband does. There was one fish curry, in particular, that was so hot that I thought my tongue was literally going to burst into flames. Even his stalwart mother was using her napkin to wipe her brow by the end of the meal.
“Well, that batch of chilis was powerful,” she said, reaching for the bowl of yogurt on the table.
Many parts of South India are primarily vegetarian, and although my in-laws do eat meat, vegetables are usually the bulk of the meal, with the meat taking a secondary role on the plate. It figures, then, that my husband’s mother–Nama, as we call her–has a particularly deft hand when it comes to vegetables. She can make vegetables taste magical. I sometimes joke that she is the “Veggie Whisperer.”
When I met my husband, I’d eaten Indian food in restaurants (mostly North Indian food–it’s incredibly difficult to find South Indian food in the Rocky Mountains), but I’d definitely never attempted to make it myself. When we got engaged, I decided that it was time I learned how to make it, since it was clear that the man was going to be sticking around for a while. The next time his mother came for a visit, I asked her to show me how to make his favorite chicken curry and broccoli.
“Oh, it’s so easy,” she said breezily. “Nothing to it! I’d love to show you.” Then she pulled out at least a dozen small jars of unlabeled spices and began toasting them and popping them in hot oil, failing to use any kind of measurements whatsoever. No teaspoons, no tablespoons, no real direction. My head threatened to spin clear around, I was so overwhelmed.
After that, I promptly went to the bookstore and bought my first Indian cookbook–one with painstaking explanations and measurements. That cookbook, Curried Favors by Maya Kaimal MacMillon, remains my go-to bible whenever I’m craving an Indian fix for dinner. I’ve made probably 2/3 of the recipes in that cookbook over the years and I haven’t had a single one that’s turned out less than stellar. That’s a pretty great track record, if you ask me.
One of the first recipes I tried from that cookbook was this potato curry, enhanced with vibrant chunks of fresh tomato and thickened with rich coconut milk. It’s different than the potato curry his mother makes, but it’s still downright delicious and oh-so bursting with flavor. No boring potatoes here!
Depending on the amount of turmeric you use, the curry can range from a pretty pinkish color to a kind of yellowy-orange. I’ve grown to really enjoy the taste of turmeric over the years, so I use a heavier hand, but if you’re at all leery, definitely use the lesser amount and adjust according to your taste.
I’ve modified the recipe slightly, just because some of the original ingredients, like fresh curry leaves, are incredibly difficult to find and I’m not always willing to drive to Boulder to get my hands on them. So this is a bit of a lazier curry, but it’s still plenty tasty. I also add a little extra coconut milk because I like my curries a bit on the saucy side (mainly because I have a dangerous addiction to naan bread and if the curry is saucy, you can sop it up with extra naan).
This curry makes a delicious vegetarian meal, accompanied by naan or basmati rice, but you can also make it as a side dish as part of an Indian feast. It also goes great with simple grilled chicken or fish, no Indian flair necessary. Every time I make this, I’m glad I went to the effort, and once you taste it for yourself, I bet you’ll agree. No fire extinguishers necessary.
Potato Curry with Onion and Tomatoes
slightly adapted from Maya Kaimal MacMillan’s Curried Favors
1 cup thinly sliced onion
2 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
5 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 cups diced or canned tomato, drained
3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 3 cups)
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk, divided
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, slightly crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
fresh chopped cilantro
In a large frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute until soft and starting to brown. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Stir in spice mixture and tomatoes and cook until tomatoes soften.
Add potatoes, water, 1/2 cup coconut milk, fennel seeds and salt. Bring to a boil; turn heat down to simmer and partially cover pan. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender and liquid has reduced slightly.
Add 1/4 cup coconut milk, bring to a boil and remove from heat. Consistency should be relatively thick. Remove from heat, add salt, mustard seeds and cilantro.