“Oh, I know I know! You’re from Sri Lanka!!”
It was all I could do to keep a straight face and repeat, “I come from an island that was once an English colony. We love to eat curry and other spicy food. And our name begins with an S.”
The rest of my colleagues at the lunch table openly grinned and continued the game by refusing to give the newest arrival to my department any further clues. They had all been through the same rigmarole of “Guess where she’s from?” and it has become something of an unspoken, light-hearted initiation into the department.
My new colleague groaned and said, “Ok, I’ll try again tomorrow…” and then went back to her lunch of a ham and cheese sandwich. Her sandwich was cold, filled with green lettuce leaves and orange carrot sticks. It was the height of summer – and in my earlier years in Belgium, I would have believed that if it had been winter, she might have opted for a warm, grilled version instead. But of course, I have been here long enough to know that, even in the cold of winter, she would probably still be nibbling away on part of a room-temperature crusty loaf filled with a slice of cheese, a slice of ham, leaves and roots for lunch.
I returned to my lunch of home-made chicken curry and jasmine rice with a side of stir-fried cabbage. My mind wandered as the chatter at the table continued in French and Dutch. I refused to be lured in by the occasional English word that popped up in the paragraphs. This was lunch-time, and I was in “rest mode”.
Then a colleague from another department, who had joined us late for lunch, leaned in pointedly and addressed me directly in English. “Monica, I love the fact that you’re eating your rice with a spoon. What a great idea!”. I smiled and continued spooning my rice and curry into my mouth, happy that I didn’t have to worry about any rice grains dropping off the side of a fork – something I would have had to pay closer attention to had I adopted the European style of eating rice with a fork and knife.
Catching a whiff of the curry smells emanating from my lunchbox, said colleague then drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “That smells really good. Did you order it in from the Thai restaurant in Zaventem?”. This time, I did laugh out loud.
“No, this is not from the Thai place. I make my own curry. We have many different styles of curry on the island. Some are spicier, some are sweeter – some are made with beef, some with mutton, some with fish, some with prawns. Some are made just with vegetables or lentils. Sometimes we eat the curry with rice, sometimes with noodles, sometimes with bread, and sometimes with pancakes. There are Malay-style curries, Indian-style curries, Chinese-style curries, Eurasian-style curries… And of course, everyone’s mum makes the best curry on the island.”
“We can eat curry at any time of the day – for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, for a late-night supper. In fact, we love curry so much that in 2011, there was a local campaign that started on Facebook to encourage Singaporeans to cook or eat curry on this one particular Sunday as a show of solidarity.”
I could see my colleague’s eyes growing bigger with disbelief that I was spinning a yarn and pulling his leg so I continued to explain.
“An immigrant family from China had complained about the smell of curry from a Singaporean Indian neighbour’s home and local officials had worked out a compromise between the two parties. Singaporeans on the island were not really happy… Immigration is a touchy subject everywhere.”
“Really??” My colleague asked incredulously as he continued to chomp on his brie-filled baguette. “There was a campaign using food to protest against immigration? It is just food.”
I made a mental note to have more lunches with this particular colleague in future so that I could share with him the important and central role food has in Singapore’s society – how nearly every activity on the island is linked to eating and how events are remembered by what food was served and eaten. How a greeting is made by asking if a person had eaten, and how at lunch time, we discuss what we are going to eat at dinner. Food is not an accessory or a nice-to-have at an event. In Singapore, food is THE event.
But on this particular day, I just smiled and said “Here, try some of my curry and tell me what you think. Be careful, it might be a little spicy – don’t have water if it’s too spicy. Just eat more of that bread that you have there.”
And I’m glad to report that even though beads of perspiration did appear on my colleague’s forehead almost immediately after his mouth closed around the rice and curry, and his eyes started to glisten, he survived. And better yet, is now eager for a taste every time I bring curry to the office for lunch. In fact, just the other week, he informed my new colleague – who by now has finally figured out that the island I’m from is Singapore – that “the curry Monica makes is very warming and would be very nice to eat in winter, if only it wasn’t so spicy”.
Well, as a Singaporean who’s (usually) not afraid of “the spicy”, why don’t you cook a pot of curry to share? And even if you are a bit afraid of “the spicy”, why not start practicing with a milder version of a curry? If you start practicing at Deepavali, by the time winter comes around, you would have mixed enough spices to ascertain the right balance that will go down well with your audience: mild, medium or hot. After all, part of what has made Singapore come this far in so short a timeframe is our “can do” attitude and unwavering quest for perfection. And together with last month’s roti jala recipe, you’ll have an exotic combination to wow your new friends with.
Recipe for A Pot of Curry
Preparation – 20 min
Cooking – 45 min
About 3-4 adults, depending on hunger
1kg chicken wings, fresh is best, trim to remove fats and stray feathers
4-5 medium-sized potatoes, cut into large cubes
2 large shallots, sliced
3 cloves fresh garlic, sliced
1 cm fresh ginger, sliced
1 sprig fresh curry leaves (or ½ tsp curry powder)
2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into large cubes (or, a 400g tin chopped tomatoes)
10-12 pea pods (or other preferred hardy vegetable like carrots)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 star anise
½ cinnamon stick
2 tbsp yoghurt (I prefer skimmed yoghurt; use more yoghurt if you want to make the curry less spicy)
3 tbsp meat curry powder (I use Baba’s, available in Singapore & Malaysia)
½ tsp coriander powder (if you can get fresh coriander, 1 sprig can be used before serving)
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp cooking oil (like sunflower oil, not something with a strong taste)
1 litre hot water (or less if you want a thicker gravy)
Salt to taste
Big, deep pot with lid
Bowl (to mix the spice powders)
Mix all the spice powders – curry, coriander, turmeric and chilli – together with a bit of water so that it becomes a paste in the bowl. Set aside.
Heat up pot on medium heat. Add oil to pot. Once oil is hot, introduce star anise, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds and give it a quick stir to activate the fragrance and taste. Be careful not to burn the spices.
Add sliced shallots, garlic and ginger to the pot and fry for about 3 min. If using fresh curry leaves, you can add it now to fry as well. (If using curry powder, then add it to the mix with the yoghurt in Step 1).
Add in the chopped tomatoes (or tinned tomatoes) to the pot and let simmer for a few minutes.
Add the spice powder paste to the bubbling pot and leave to boil on low heat for a few minutes.
Add the chicken, the potatoes and the rest of the vegetables (hardy ones first) and mix well with the mixture in the pot.
Add the hot water and leave the pot to simmer on low heat for about 40 min. You can test the level of salt after about 20 min and add salt if desired.
At around 40 min, once the curry is cooked (you will know it’s done when it doesn’t taste raw and sharp on your tongue), you can add in the yoghurt to the pot slowly. Be careful that the yoghurt does not curdle. Stir well.
Add in the fresh sprig of coriander to the top of the curry and close the pot. Wait a few minutes before ladling out the curry into a serving bowl.