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Excerpt: Naben Ruthnum explores the taste of home in Curry: Eating, Reading and Race

In this excerpt from his new book, Naben Ruthnum is hit by nostalgia for his mother’s cooking and reflects on how food changes when cooked on different continents.

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Let me tell you about a personal curry of note – Homecoming Shrimp Curry, which has become the staple meal I associate with Christmas in the Ruthnum household. It's shouldered aside kleftiko and a Persian fish dish with a walnut stuffing as the go-to son-pleaser for my annual returns home, and my parents like it just as much as I do.

It's a deep greenish-brown, a shade you don't often see in Indian restaurants outside of perhaps a saag: While Westerners may like brown food, they don't like it to actually be brown.

The sauce has a density earned by its ingredients and process: Mom makes the masala with large, onion chunks that would be the star of the dish if the sauce didn't take a midmorning whirl through the food processor before being returned to the pan.

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The huge shrimp, decanted frozen into a colander from a frozen bag, look like chilled practical effects from a 1980s alien-invasion movie before the sauce catches up to them and they're subsumed into the curry, white and pink peaks in the murky simmer.

Time and varying heat are key to this dish's success, a daylong process of heating, settling, cooling and boiling whose alchemy seems beyond science.

That's often part of curry narratives: the ineffable, inexplicable Eastern magic performed on electric Western stoves. Top British chef Heston Blumenthal, on his television show In Search of Perfection, where he sought to make perfected versions of classic dishes such as hamburger and steak by seeking out their ur-versions and distilling historically successful processes into a measured, modern method, had scientists do a study on the use of yogurt in the marinade for chicken cooked in a tandoor for his tikka masala episode.

While it was proven that yogurt vastly aided the marinade's absorption, they couldn't figure out why. It just did.

While this made for an irresistible TV moment, and I don't doubt Mr. Blumenthal's standards or the BBC's scientist-hiring resources, it strikes me as odd that what seems like a simple matter of chemistry and biology should be insoluble.

There's no magic or formula involved in the time and heat factors of Homecoming Shrimp Curry, but there is particularity. As in many immigrant households, one of my parents prepared food in the morning and reheated it throughout the day, the knobs on the stove and eventually the button on the microwave enduring twists and pokes as mealtimes came around.

In the case of this curry, the multiple simmerings are what elevate it to Christmas dinner and my first off-the-plane meal. The basics are simple, and as I can't think of a good reason not to include the recipe, I'll give it to you.

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Here's a direct paste of the e-mail that Mom sent me so I could botch the making of the dish.

Kay's Madras Prawn Curry

Large prawns, cleaned and ready

2 large onions, peeled and puréed in the food processor

Coriander leaves, washed and chopped up

Tamarind, soaked in warm water

Turmeric methi, seeds or fresh

Curry leaves, if available

Garlic and ginger, about a heaped teaspoonful each

Fish curry powder (I buy the fish curry powder from Superstore). You can use the regular or your own mix as well. About 3 tablespoons or more – it all depends on the size of the onions

Water or coconut water

2 tomatoes, chopped up

Salt and chilies

  • In a large pan, heat some olive oil, sauté the prawns with a sprinkling of turmeric.
  • Do not overcook the prawns.
  • Remove and put aside.
  • Throw away the liquid.
  • Heat up some more oil, add the puréed onion, stir till softened and lightly browned.
  • Make a pit in the middle, add the curry powder mix (tamarind, curry leaves, methi, ginger and garlic in some warm water).
  • Add a little bit of olive oil on top and let cook on low heat.
  • Allow the curry to cook thoroughly with the lid on, but check in often. Add a little water or coconut water to prevent sticking, then mix the onion with the curry. Now is the time to choose the thickness of your sauce; this should be a fairly thick one. Add the chopped-up tomatoes.
  • Let simmer for a few minutes.
  • Add the prawns.
  • Simmer some more.
  • Add your chopped-up coriander and serve with rice or rotis.

I called to inquire about the accuracy of this recipe, and it turns out my recall was wrong: Mom does food-process the onions before the cooking starts, not after. The puréeing-of the-completed-sauce thing comes, I realize, from a Gordon Ramsay chicken tikka masala recipe I used to make all the time when I lived in Montreal, with a roommate who had a Cuisinart.

Mom also leaves out the bit about time lapses and reheating throughout the day, but that's hard to quantify on the page. I don't follow the turmeric-fry step of the recipe – seems to me that the shrimp cook so fast, they should do it in the gravy where they belong. Then again, my dish somehow isn't a patch to Mom's: This is a trope, yes, but it remains true here – I know I can fix it if I master the timing.

There are some moments in this recipe that an Indian cuisine purist would find harrowing. For example, the "fish curry powder from Superstore." At the popular food blog Food52, Bay Area food writer Annada Rathi rails against these concoctions: "That's when I feel like screaming from the rooftops, 'Curry is not Indian!'; 'Curry powder is not Indian!'; and 'You will not find curry powder in Indian kitchens!'"

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She's certainly been in more kitchens in India than the zero I've entered, so I'll take her word, but I'll tell you this: Every diasporic kitchen I've opened cupboards in contains curry powder, even if it is a home blend of dry spices tipped into an old Patak's screw-on glass jar.

Rathi isn't a hard-liner – she goes on to note that "in the course of this article, it has dawned on me that 'curry' is the most ambiguous and therefore the most flexible word, a broad term that conveys the idea of cooked, spiced, saucy or dry, vegetable, meat, or vegetable and meat dish in the most appropriate manner available."

The spectacular imprecision of the term speaks to its ability to encompass centuries of food history, cooking, misinterpretation and reinvention: It's truly the diasporic meal, even when it stays at home. Curry is only definably Indian because India is a country that has the world in it.

There is a truth to the tropes of cooking and homeland and curry, but it can't possibly contain the entire truth: The overlaps in this conversation between writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Scaachi Koul and me are vast, covering our relationships to our parents and a land we barely know compared to the countries where we wake up every day.

In the details, the distinct efforts to set personal experience apart – my insistence that Mom has no kitchen secrets and that cooking was never meant to be a key 31 to the exotic but a passage to adulthood, Koul's universal reflections on whether there is a point when one ever stops needing one's mom, Jhumpa Lahiri's foray into cookbook learning – are there, but I wonder if they are present for readers who are drawn to and receive these pieces.

Are the brown, diasporic readers looking for commiseration?

And are the non-brown ones looking for an exotic, nostalgic tour of a foreigner's unknowable kitchen? The short answer, I believe, is yep.

Excerpted with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved.

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