The Comfort of Curry
My spice drawer collapseth over.
Try as I might to keep the jars and tins in neat alphabetical order, there are just far too many for all the cuisines dabbled in to do so.
In my parents’ kitchen that I grew up in, though, that never was a problem. Their spice collection snuggled neatly in one metal pan in the cupboard that held barely a dozen in total. Cloves to stud the Easter ham. Cinnamon for baking oatmeal cookies. White pepper to sprinkle into rice porridge. And that all-important jar of curry powder that my Dad would reach for whenever he made lamb curry.
Nowadays, I keep a jar of curry in my pantry for many uses. But when spring hits, I can’t help but think of lamb curry first and foremost as my Dad so often did.
His lamb curry was made in a pressure cooker, the kind that sat on the stovetop with a metal knob screwed into its lid that hissed and whistled like mad. He’d cut up potatoes, carrots and onions and throw them into the pot with chunks of lamb with plenty of chicken stock, some spiky star anise, and a few generous shakes from that curry jar — and let it all bubble away under that locked lid.
Sometimes I’d have no idea what he was making for dinner. But the moment he lifted the lid off that pot, that unmistakable aroma would fill the house, letting me know it was curry lamb night. The fragrance is so recognizable — pungently earthy, musky, even a tad sweet, and with the promise of something a little exotic.
My Dad’s version was golden and brothy — meant to be eaten with mounds of fluffy rice. All it took was one mouthful to warm you deliciously from within.
My husband who is Japanese-American also grew up with curry and rice. But the type he is accustomed to is far more gravy-like. It’s a deep, dark pool of sauce, so thick you can barely discern what’s below until you really dig a fork into it. It’s also delicious. And like the version my Dad used to make, quite tame on the heat spectrum, compared to Indian curries.
In New York Chef Tadashi Ono’s newest cookbook, “Japanese Soul Cooking” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy, is full of home-style dishes, including ramen, tonkatsu, tempura, and donburi. It also includes a curry dish that marries both of the styles my husband and I grew up on. The sauce is a little thinner than what my husband is used to and with a scant more weight than the type I favored as a child.
“Tadashi’s Lamb Curry” gets its flavor from a lot of curry powder, as well as some garam masala for added complexity and a dash of ichimi togarashi (Japanese powdered chili) for an almost imperceptible tickle of heat. It also uses a load of onions. Six whole ones, sliced thinly, which not only add sweetness but give greater body to the sauce.
I was skeptical that 1 pound of lamb shoulder would be enough for four servings plus leftovers, as the recipe stated, so I added another 1/2 pound of meat. I needn’t have worried. With any curry, the sauce is the star and so sensory filling in every way that the meat and veg become mere supporting players, especially when served with plenty of rice. If you decide to use 1 1/2 pounds of lamb shoulder as I did, you’ll end up with enough for 6 easily — and still plenty of sauce for all.
The recipe calls for two carrots, thinly sliced. But I used four, and left mine in larger chunks because I like their presence forthright in a curry. You can do the same, if you like.
As I lifted the lid of the pot and inhaled, I thought of my Dad. I think he would have liked this version.
It’s different than his. But the effect is wonderfully the same.
Tadashi’s Lamb Curry
(Serves 4 with leftovers)
1 pound lamb shoulder, cut into bite-size cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 pounds medium onions (about 5 or 6), peeled, cut in half lengthwise, and thinly sliced against the grain
8 ounces carrots (about 2 medium)
2 stalks celery (about 4 ounces), thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
6 tablespoons curry powder
2 cups dry white wine
4 cups water
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 pound tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ichimi togarashi (Japanese ground chili) or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Steamed rice, for serving
Season the lamb with 1 teaspoon of the salt, pepper, and garam masala. Preheat a large pot over high heat. Add the oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the lamb. Cook the lamb, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes, until the meat browns. Transfer the meat to a plate and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium and add the onions to the pot. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until onions soften and brown. Stir occasionally; be careful that the onions don’t burn. Add carrots, celery, and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to turn translucent. Add 3 tablespoons of the curry powder and cook, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Add the water, thyme, bay leaf, tomatoes, tomato paste, and ginger, and mix to combine. Add the lamb and any accumulated juices to the pot. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add brown sugar, soy sauce, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, ichimi togarashi, and remaining 3 tablespoons curry powder to the pot. Stir for about 1 minute to combine the ingredients. Cover again and simmer for 30 minutes more. Serve with steamed white rice.
From “Japanese Soul Cooking” by Tadashi Ono
More Tadashi Ono Recipes to Try: Romaine Hearts with Miso-Mustard Dressing