When I was growing up in suburban Australia, a typical kitchen spice rack would consist of: nutmeg and cinnamon, sweet paprika, black pepper, ocassionally some cloves, as well as a few jars of dried herbs. In addition to this, there was often a little orange pot called Keens curry powder, which although it could not fit in the rack, was used on an almost daily basis. My mother would add this pungent mixture of turmeric, black pepper, fenugreek seeds, chilli and corainder to rice, soup, stews and her weekly chorba, which was essentially a casserole of whatever she could find in the fridge at the time. Other friends speak of an unnamed pot of yellow powder, which was the curry for their curried eggs sandwiches, and like Keens, this was the “go-to” pot when they wanted to spice things up a little.
Ready-made curry powders have come of age since the old pot of Keens, and today, the average supermarket shelf usually sports a dizzying variety of spicy concoctions that can quickly turn your spare ribs into lemongrassy Rendang, chicken into a Tandoor or Vindaloo, and your block of tofu can end up as either Thai Red, Green or even Peanut curry. These days as many of our kitchen pantries seem to play the role of a culinary Lonely Planet, with a few fresh extras from your local market or Asian grocer, most of us can easily (and cheaply) make up a stash of our very own home made curry paste and kiss that ready-made jar of God-Knows-What paste goodbye.
I recently spent an afternoon with friend and chef Singgih Trisno, who with partner, Mia Bureau, a food sculpturist together run Mia Tapas Indonesian (formerly Le Resto de l’Institut) in Montréal’s Villeray (a few minutes walk from the Jean Talon market). The restaurant, which is also the premises for Mia’s popular food scultpture classes, puts a modern and seasonal spin on traditional Indonesian cuisine. Singgih who hails from Java, Indonesia uses curry as the staple to many of his dishes, and explained that curry originates from the Tamil word of Kari, and whilst different cultures have different mixes, the typical idea is that a blend of spices is made and then used to cook ones food in a ‘gravy’ or what Westerners have termed as ‘curry’. Yet typical is not how to describe Singgih’s dishes. Prepared tapas-style (which is a great way for patrons to get an introduction to Indonesian food) Singgih turns the ordinary into extraordinary and uses both spices and curry to not only cook with, but to marinate, season, and provide fragrance to his dishes. For example, a giant tempura prawn and seared scallop is served with mango salsa and turmeric-infused aoili.
Beef tartare is seasoned with Asian spices, accompanied by a quail egg and taro chips.
Black sesame seed encrusted blue marlin is served with egg noodles, mushroom ragout and a tangy fennel salad.
Singgih explained that curry blends are dependant on climate, and the available produce in an area. For example, in India, the curries are typically spicier along the coastal South, and a great deal of seafood is used. Whilst, in the colder North, where there is an abundance of mutton and dairy products, we find creamier curries. Malay curries are different again, with a typically drier paste being used, whilst in Thailand, curries are usually coconut based, and aromatics like lime leaves and Thai basil feature strongly. I asked Singgih what would be grown as opposed to what would be market-bought when preparing a paste back home in Java? He explained that many families, like his own, do grow their own fresh ginger, galangal and tumeric roots, yet they would find spices such as cardamom in the local market, which are grown in the area, and then dried and sold as seed or as a ground spice.
In a typical Indonesian household, a white curry paste is usually made up everyday, or every other day, and the end product (i.e. whether its red, green, yellow or dry) depends on the various additional ingredients that are added. Galangal, lemongrass and turmeric root which are key ingredients to the curry pastes shown here are easily found in Asian grocery stores and are not only inexpensive, but also have great healing properties, good for colds and aiding digestion.
Basic white curry paste (to make 12 oz of paste or enough curry for 6 standard servings)
- 8 French shallots
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 large knob of ginger
- 2 knobs of galangal
- 1-2 tbsp. coriander seeds
- salt and pepper to taste
- 6 almonds (finely chopped)
- Vegetable oil
- Finely dice the fresh ingredients including the garlic, ginger, galangal and shallots
- Chop up the almonds
- Pulverize chopped ingredients in a food processor with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil until it begins to resemble a paste (it should not get runny)
- Grind coriander seeds in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle
- Dry pan-fry the coriander until the color changes (should take no more than 3 minutes)
- Now add the coriander seeds to the paste and stir well
- Heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil, add the white curry paste to this, and heat gently until the color changes (should take about 15-20 minutes) to a rich caramel colour, be careful not to burn the spices.
This makes up 12oz of paste which is enough for six separate curry dishes. You can break up in smaller portions and freeze (up to two months) until the paste is needed. Since making the paste, I’ve already added it to a coconut-ginger soup as well as used a little when stir frying prawns.
This white paste is your staple for making curry dishes and whilst it can be used by itself; most people like to add further ingredients to make either red, green or yellow curry paste.
Red Curry paste (makes a portion to serve four)
For a red curry, which goes well with poultry, veal, beef, tofu, prawns or vegetables (such as aubergine, pumpkin, zucchini, green beans) the following additional ingredients are added to the white curry paste.
- 2 tablespoons of white curry paste
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 1 tsp of sambal olek or 1 tsp of finely diced red chili
- 4 stalks of fresh lemongrass diced (inner green parts only)
- ½ can of tomato paste
- 4 lime leaves (optional)
- 1 block of palm sugar (found in Asian supermarkets) or 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
- 1 knob of freshly peeled and diced turmeric (or 1 tbsp turmeric spice)
- Vegetable oil
- Basil or coriander to garnish
- Heat your oil.
- Add in your white curry paste and heat gently.
- Now add the coconut milk, sambal olek, lemongrass, turmeric, tomato paste. Stir through and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
- Add a few lime leaves whilst cooking for additional aroma and fragrance.
- Now add your protein or vegetables and cook these through until done. For example, for chicken thighs or breasts, you may prefer to lightly pan fry beforehand and then add to the curry and simmer until cooked through.
- For vegetables or tofu, add to the curry and quickly heat until boiling, and then turn down the heat and lightly simmer for no more than 8 minutes.
- For beef curries, you may lightly pan fry strips of beef, and then add them to the curry until cooked through.
- Garnish with basil or coriander leaves.
Here Singgih takes Cornish hen thighs which are marinated (at least an hour), seared quickly in a red curry paste, and then roasted until done. More red curry is added to coconut milk to make a serving sauce.
For a green curry paste, which is perfect for chicken, green vegetables, prawns and tofu, omit the tomato paste and turmeric, and add four finely chopped lime leaves at Step 3. For a yellow curry paste, which is great for duck, fish, or vegetables such as squash, pumpkin and red peppers, add more turmeric at Step 3, and omit the tomato paste. On Singihh’s menu, a yellow curry paste was used to marinate Spanish mackerel, which was then lightly panfried.
At the end of the afternoon, Singgih showed me a great trick which can be done with coconut flakes. Coconut flakes were first soaked in coconut milk and finely chopped lime leaves, and then flakes were drained and then stir fried in a little yellow curry, sugar and turmeric powder (for additional color). He used the flakes to garnish a simple, yet exquisite red and yellow beet carpaccio, which was then dressed with a knockout lime and hazelnut oil dressing (also goes beautifully with a crisp glass of Alsace Puy Arnaud).
I asked Mia and Singgih how much they inspired each other, and more specifically how did Mia’s intricate food sculpture skills translate onto the plates at the restaurant. They had a shared take on the subject, “Food itself is a sculpture, the idea is to keep it simple.” They also explained that the trick to a good curry is in it’s preparation, once that’s done, the rest is easy. The two of them were enthusiastic about both their short and long-term plans, including a trip to Indonesia as well as Mia competing at the upcoming culinary 2012 Culinary Olympiads in Erfurt, yet in the meantime, the approaching Spring has inspired Singgih with a bunch of new recipes. I asked whether it was too early to disclose the ‘secrets’ of his kitchen? He laughed and explained, “Not at all. Take curry for example, no matter how many times you prepare it, it can never hope to be the same.”
Mia Tapas Indonesian is open for brunch, lunch and dinner Wednesday through to Sunday. For reservations or information on food sculpture classes, call the number listed below.
MIA TAPAS INDONESIAN 350 rue Castelnau est, Montreal, Quebec, H2R 1P9 (514)274-2313