Monday, September 17, 2007

An Indian meal in Bologna

After three weeks in Bologna, a need came over me tonight to return to my beloved spices - painstakingly collected and stored in coloured spice jars I found here - and cook up a decent curry, at least in honour of eastern humours, and just for the two of us. Food here is very good, but I wanted some other dimensions, longed to play with aromas and alchemy. It would be quick and simple, nothing fancy, just chicken, vegetables, rice. I walked to the wonderful central market, ten minutes from home, and bought two chicken breasts at the butcher; fiery, flavourful, thin green chilis and fresh coriander from the Bangladeshi grocers (they know me by now, and when I ask for those sorts of ingredients that Bolognese, and generally Italian cooking has little use for, they readily go to the back of the store to retrieve exactly what's needed); some cooking tomatoes; and more of that fabulous, thick, lively Greek yogurt one thankfully finds here, at the bountiful meat, salumi and cheese counters of the town's delis.

Back home, I thought of making a tomato curry and a simple chicken curry with yogurt, not with the guidance of Camellia Panjabi, as usual, but with that of Nigel Slater and his elegant Kitchen Diaries. Then I decided to combine the chicken, tomato and yogurt, and, although I began with Slater, I quickly closed that inspiring book, as one must. I ground a teaspoonful each of cumin seeds and coriander seeds, about half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, heated a little sunflower seed oil in the wok, threw in the spices, let the aromas start wafting through the flat; added a chopped onion, a chopped knob of ginger, a little garlic; let the onions cook a little, then added two longitudinally sliced green chillis, and a dash of chopped coriander. (Here I would have added five or six fresh curry leaves, had I had them - we'll have to bring them back from New York. The grocers in the market, being Bangladeshi, don't quite know about southern curry leaves - or so it seems.) After about five minutes, I added the chopped tomatoes, salt, a teaspoon of curcuma; let the tomatoes melt, another five to ten minutes. Then, lowering the flame, I added a good cupful of the yogurt, and mixed everything well. Now I added the chicken, cut into good-sized chunks, some more salt, and a little more fresh coriander. I kept the flame low.

I had some lovely zucchini in the fridge, so in the meantime, I chopped them into not-too-thick roundels, heated a little oil in a pan, cooked a large chopped shallot and a knob of chopped ginger for a few minutes, added a little ground coriander and cumin seeds, as well as some curcuma, and then the zucchini roundels, which were perfectly cooked within about ten minutes.

While the chicken and zucchini cooked, I had rinsed and then soaked the basmati rice - only partly refined, highest quality - for a few minutes, boiled water in a saucepan, added salt, then threw in the rice, adding two cloves, two cardamom pods, and some curcuma. Five minutes later everything was ready. (I usually soak the rice for much longer, but this time there was no point making a fuss.)

The result was a hearty, wholesome, homey Indian meal, not particularly refined, sophisticated or deep - the chicken should have been marinated, or at least I should have salted it before cooking it, and so on - but very satisfying. Cooling spices and warming chilli and ginger, the balance between tastes and textures, between the acidic tomatoes and the alkaline yogurt - those are the guiding principles of Indian cooking. One feels good after such a meal. This is only the first one of this kind in Bologna, then.



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