I was introduced to the exotic, spicy flavors of Indian curries not in India, but in Kenya, East Africa, where I began my long career as expat wife and kitchen goddess.
Newly married, my Peace Corps volunteer hero and I lived in the town of Nyeri in the Kenya Highlands, spectacularly gorgeous as you can see on this photo by ditzy’ girl.
We had a little house with a lemon tree in front and a Swedish volunteer next door. Bengt worked in animal husbandry and spent his days in the field teaching Kikuyu farmers better milking, dipping and castration techniques. After work he’d often come over to have a cup of tea with me and tell me about his adventures, which to me, as a city girl, were rather, let’s say, fascinating. So, one day he came over and invited us to a party . . .
COOKING LESSONS: NOT AT LE CORDON BLUE
Bengt is in my tiny lean-to kitchen watching me pour us both a cup of tea. He has just invited us to a party he is organizing. International volunteers from far and wide will be attending so it will be a fun gathering. “We’re having curry,” he tells me, stirring two heaping spoons of sugar into his tea.
“Curry?” Now, I’m not surprised about the curry itself, since eating curry in Kenya is not so strange if you consider that Indian people have lived here for several generations, having arrived in East Africa during British colonial times to help build the Kenya-Uganda railway. No, I am impressed Swedish Bengt is cooking it. “Are you making curry?” I ask.
He laughs. “No, no. Karim and two of his mates are coming over to do the cooking.”
“Karim? Your friend?” Cooking does not seem to be the domain of young Indian dudes in turbans.
“Yes. Their mothers are telling them how to do it.”
This I have to see. “Can I come early and watch?”
Of course I can come early and watch. Watching seems like a good idea because my earlier experimentation with curry was not a success. Wanting to make beef curry, I had stirred numerous spoons of canned yellow curry powder into a pot of American beef stew, thinking that would do the trick. Trust me, it didn’t.
So, on the day of the party, pen and paper in hand, I squeeze through a hole in the hedge separating our yards and enter Bengt’s back door into the kitchen, which is significantly bigger than mine. Three young Indian guys, dark-eyed and handsome, are busily chopping whole chickens in small pieces, bone and all. I see individually wrapped spices on the table, eight or nine I’m guessing, waiting to be used. Not a can of yellow powder in sight.
I introduce myself and tell them of my culinary mission and after a few joking comments, the cooks get busy again and I watch as they chop onions, garlic, tomatoes and ginger root. So far, so good.
“Where’s Bengt?” I ask.
One of the guys points his knife at the door leading into the dining room. “He’s in there with Susan. She came early so she could spay his dog before the party.”
I tell you, expat life can be interesting.
I decide to peek in and say hello. I open the door. The dining room table is covered with a bed sheet on which lies Bengt’s German shepherd, comatose. Susan is a British volunteer, a veterinarian, who lives in the bush. She’s dressed in jeans and a shirt and her mousy brown hair is tied back in a pony tail. Various pieces of surgical equipment lie at the ready for the impending canine sterilization.
“You want to watch?” Bengt asks. His big hand rests tenderly on the dog’s head. Since he’s used to castrating sheep, watching this procedure is probably no big deal for him, but I’d just as soon go back to the kitchen, where, incidentally, I’ve just been a cool witness to dead chickens being hacked to pieces. Well, it’s not the same thing, really, is it?
“No, thank you,” I say nicely, “I just came to say hi. I’m getting initiated into the secrets of cooking curry.” I escape back to the kitchen where the men are melting half a pound of butter in a large pot.
Mesmerized by that sea of bubbling butter, I contemplate the present moment, how bizarre the situation. Here I am, in Africa, a Dutch woman, married to an American, learning to cook chicken curry from three Indian men in the house of a Swedish volunteer who at this moment in the room next door is watching his German shepherd being spayed by a British woman vet. Talk about living an international life.
Onions, garlic and ginger root are tossed into the hot butter and fried until golden brown. One of the handsome threesome tosses in a load of chopped tomatoes and stirs. Karim makes a move to add the spices and I quickly put my hand on his arm to stop him.
“Wait,” I say. “How much of each of these are you putting in?”
The guys consider this for a moment. “We sort of guess,” Karim says confidently, adding that that’s how their mothers do it. Not that they have much of an idea how to guess, but since their mothers aren’t present to see what they are doing, why worry?
“Let me just measure them then.” I’ve brought my American measuring spoons, much to the amusement of the turbaned cooks.
Karim points. “Cumin, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, coriander, cayenne pepper.”
I write it down dutifully, hoping my color description will help to identify them in the shops when I go to buy them.
Photo © John and Gill
After I’ve measured the spices, they stir them into the fried onion mixture and magic happens: Fragrance explodes from the pan. I breathe in the aromas, ecstatic. I watch as they dump in the chicken pieces, mixing them well to coat them with the spice mixture. The lid goes on the pan and all is stewed for a while, after which Karim pours in hot water to make the sauce, and adds several tablespoons of lemon juice.
The guys are enjoying my enthusiasm. They tell me curry can be made with anything, with all kinds of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Even eggs, and bananas. The door opens and Bengt comes in with a saucer holding some bloody tissue. “You want this for the curry?” he asks with a grin.
Karim waves his hand in dismissal. “No, it’s perfect as it is.”
And he’s right. A few hours later, not a bite is left.
Do you like cooking? Are you interested in exotic food? As expats living in foreign countries, we all end up with a cooking lesson or two, and I’d like to hear your stories.