Celebrating curry

It's not easy to come up with a consensus on what constitutes this international dish.

curry 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
curry 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I learned that the largest international curry festival in California was going to take place in Los Angeles, I was delighted. Ever since I grew to love my mother-in-law's Yemenite cooking seasoned with curry-like hawayej marak or Yemenite soup spice, I haven't met a curry I didn't like. I had never been to a curry festival before and I wasn't sure what to expect. At the festival my husband and I sampled a Thai mussman curry of beef cubes and potato wedges in a spicy cumin-scented sauce enriched with coconut milk, served on jasmine rice. At a Japanese booth we were tempted by the curried Japanese noodle dish, yakisoba, which a cook was making fresh on a large outdoor griddle. He tossed bright yellow noodles with cabbage and bean sprouts on the hot pan, then added three seasonings. When I asked about them, he explained that he was using soy sauce, okonomi sauce (a slightly sweet-and-sour soy sauce designed for savory Japanese pancakes) and Japanese hot curry powder. The cabbage was pleasingly crunchy, and the noodles well seasoned - a tasty, satisfying dish with just the right amount of peppery bite for our taste. The winner of the festival's "curry king contest" was also a curry-flavored noodle dish - a Thai ground fish curry noodle. The Los Angeles curry festival focused on Thai and Japanese curries. Yet the world of curries is so vast that I would have come across a completely different selection of dishes had I visited a British curry festival - the Bangla Town International Curry Festival in London, which, according to the event's organizers, "celebrates the best in curry culture, offering visitors the chance to sample some of the most tantalizing cuisine from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan." Choices of a much different character are available at the Jamaica National Curry Festival, where visitors sample traditional Jamaican dishes as well as Chinese, Indian and Nigerian curries while enjoying reggae music. Even Japan, which is known for its delicate dishes, has its curry celebration, the Tsuchiura Curry Festival, featuring ground meat curries and curry-sauced schnitzel-like meat cutlets served on short-grain rice. It's not easy to come up with a consensus on what constitutes a curry. In Asian Soups, Stews and Curries author Alexandra Greeley gives several definitions. "Mention 'stew' in Asia," she writes, "and in many kitchens the cook might well think 'curry,' for a stew and a curry share similar characteristics, making them almost synonymous. Curries... consist of few or many ingredients... cooked and served in a thick or thin sauce." A Malaysian friend of Greeley's defined curry as a "melange of spices ground to a powder or a paste and used as a base to produce an often thick stew of vegetables, meats or seafood." Some essential curry ingredients she mentions are lemongrass, chilies, coriander, turmeric, onions, garlic, ginger and cumin but, of course, not all of these appear in every curry. Based on my experience, a curry has to have cumin, turmeric or both, and thus many Middle Eastern dishes would also qualify as curries. According to Greeley, "the Indians can probably take credit for inventing the curry concept" but now "the Burmese, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Thais, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Cambodians, Chinese and Lao have their own curries" and, she comments, even the Japanese, "who have earned their reputation for... temperate cuisine," have their own adaptation. Indeed, I've come across popular Japanese curry restaurants in Hawaii, Los Angeles and even Paris. The basic formula was a savory curry sauce that came with your choice of meat or vegetables. Some look down on Japanese curries because they are often made with curry powder instead of requiring the cook to grind or pound fresh ingredients to a paste. If, however, you have a curry powder you like, these curries can be delicious and have the advantage of being easy to prepare. Greeley's Japanese-style chicken curry involves no more work than other stews and makes a good one-pot dinner. She sprinkles curry powder over chicken pieces, then cooks them with sauteed onions, chicken stock, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, coriander and cumin. She finishes the stew with a sweet touch - grated apple and a pinch of sugar. Spiced sauteed noodles like those I enjoyed at the festival are addictive. My good friend Linda Burum, author of Asian Pasta, wrote of yakisoba, "a spicy Japanese version of Chinese stir-fried noodles," that they are found at every outdoor celebration in Japan, where they are "flamboyantly grilled on huge cast-iron griddles under canvas awnings." Linda's yakisoba is made with Chinese wheat noodles or Japanese ramen, combined with stir-fried meat strips, onions, carrots and cabbage, flavored with soy sauce, ginger, sugar and sake wine and garnished with green onions, toasted flaked nori (the seaweed that's used to wrap sushi) and hot pickled ginger. For a Japanese curried pasta, Burum combines thick chewy udon noodles with sauteed onions, beef and carrot strips, broth, soy sauce, curry powder and for extra kick, wasabi powder - the green "horseradish" that comes with sushi. When making curried sauteed noodles, you can vary the vegetables and meats to your taste, or make your noodles parve. For a fresh, lively texture, leave the vegetables slightly crunchy. EASY CURRIED YAKISOBA For a variation, you can add strips of zucchini or sliced mushrooms to the pan along with the cabbage. Start with a smaller amount of curry powder, and taste before adding more. 350 gr. Chinese wheat noodles, spaghetti or vermicelli 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 onion, halved, cut in thin slices 1 or 2 medium carrots, cut in thin strips 6 to 8 cups cabbage, cut in bite-size pieces 1⁄2 cup chicken or vegetable broth 225 to 350 gr. tender meat - good quality steak, chicken or turkey breast, cut in thin strips (optional) 2 to 4 tsp. curry powder, to taste 2 Tbsp. soy sauce, or to taste 2 Tbsp. rice wine or dry sherry pinch sugar 2 cups bean sprouts 1⁄3 cup sliced green onions, green part only hot red pepper (optional) Salt and freshly ground pepper, if desired Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat, stirring often, for 3 to 8 minutes, depending on the type of noodles, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large deep skillet or wok. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until softened. Add carrots and cabbage and saute, tossing often, about 7 minutes or until crisp-tender; add a few tablespoons broth if mixture becomes dry. Remove vegetables from skillet. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat over medium heat. Add meat and saute, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes or until meat changes color throughout. Remove to a plate. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add noodles and saute 1⁄2 minute, tossing. Add curry powder, soy sauce, rice wine, remaining broth and sugar and toss over heat with two wooden spoons until noodles are coated with seasonings. Return meat and vegetables to pan of noodles and heat, tossing, until all ingredients are tender and hot. Add bean sprouts and toss lightly over low heat until heated through. Season to taste with hot pepper and more soy sauce to taste. Add salt and pepper if you like. Serve hot, sprinkled with green onions. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta and Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.