THE INTENSITY OF INDIA
Curries, while found in abundance and variety all across Asia, somehow always remind me of India.
Incredible India, whose streets are incessantly filled with cars honking hello to each other, where buffaloes, cows, goats and cars share the same lanes, and where it’s not uncommon to see a sauntering elephant greeting you with a lift of his trunk from the roadside.
India, whose vibrancy and color is flaunted in its women’s beautiful saris, shining brightly against their rich chocolate-colored skin, and whose pulse beats so strongly you can feel the vibes everywhere – full of life, urgency and rush.
India, the country which is estimated to have a third of the world’s poor, was where I came face-to-face with poverty on the streets so stark it made me withdraw in horror, and then reminded me of how much I have to be grateful for.
The first and only time I visited India was in September 2009, courtesy of a work trip with other colleagues from the Standard Chartered Bank International Graduate program.
We’d touched down late in the night, passed through the customs at the Chennai airport, and then found ourselves being greeted by a massive crowd of excited faces in the arrival hall. It was a hot autumn night in south India, with the air thick with humidity, and mostly, I recall our voices being drowned in the incredible symphony of honking cars which went on throughout the night and day, often without any pleasant tune.
During the next three weeks in India, we worked, but we also traveled, visiting tourist sites such as the famous Taj Mahal, the city of Jaipur, and mainly just exploring with the spare time we had left between work weeks.
THE HEART OF POVERTY
In a spur of activities and new experiences, I remembered one thing – that the intensity of India left me permanently impacted.
A slum situated next to a five-star hotel was nothing out of the ordinary. Walking along the streets, I saw a white-bearded almost naked man sleeping at a bus stop, his nails long and grey from the grime and dirt of the street – he was one of millions who would call the roads their home, drifting in the heart of poverty.
I later learned more about the Indian caste system, whose members were separated into difference caste levels depending on luck or misfortune. It deeply saddened me that those in the lowest caste, mercilessly labeled the “untouchables”, were born with an innate resignation to their fate – that their lives would be confined to where they were born, with futures which would never be better than those of their forefathers because they wouldn’t be able to upgrade to a better social class.
I was tugged by countless street children begging for a coin, or a note or two, as they followed us tourists, who for them, were their only source of income. I remember being struck by the depth of poverty in a country making headlines all over the world; I was amazed by how many companies had set up shop and outsourced their services to India; and I was mesmerized by the intensity of it all.
I watched in fascination as women dressed elegantly in brightly-colored saris walked alongside my tour bus in the Indian countryside, with large pots of water perched intricately on their heads, balanced only by a single hand as they strode down the dirt path. They looked so regal in their beautiful saris, like ballerinas en pointe, despite living such a harsh, backward life.
It seemed like there was always some sort of noisy commotion going on in the streets, and for the first-time first-world visitor, this can result in a rather unsettling experience.
Too many people and vehicles and animals were moving on the roads all at the same time; it was an art to cross a permanently busy street whose traffic showed no signs of slowing down, ever. People were shaking their heads and gesturing so much that I often got lost in thought halfway through conversations, wondering why Indians shake their heads when they were saying “yes”.
There was the distinct smell of ghee, too – the clarified butter used so abundantly in Indian cuisine. A smell so rich and thick and overwhelming that it hits you in the face when you enter a sweet shop, leaving you momentarily giddy. Sitting at the back of a tuk-tuk zooming through the crowds gave me an insider view of India, as the driver took short cuts through back alleys and corners so dark and deserted I wondered if I’d get to my destination alive.
INDIA’S RUSTIC BEAUTY
Despite all the frantic running around and concoction of noises and sights that distract and disorientates, there was a very rustic beauty to India that inevitably touched my heart when I was there.
In the midst of the mess and never-ending noise, there were always smiling faces showing off bright white teeth. People were so incredibly friendly and earnest to help, always saying yes while still shaking their heads from side to side. I’ve learnt that the head-shaking is a cultural thing. And there was a rare peace in spite of all the commotion.
And of course, there was the amazing amount of spices and curries, for which each region and province could be identified with.
BAKED CURRY FISH FILLETS
Just like the rest of India, its curries are made up of so many things; spices and herbs and ingredients – each family possibly had their own curry recipe; and while the curries are almost impossible to tell apart – except for varying tones of brown or yellow or green – they each carry their own distinct tastes and smells.
And curries always remind me of India’s melting pot of activities, differences and contrasts.
I haven’t made curry in the longest of times, but thoughts of India and the increasingly cold weather eventually dragged me to buy ingredients for this dish of baked curry fish fillets which I first tried at Pelusa Molina’s cooking class.
The thick curry which forms the base for the dish is relatively simple to make, and requires just a handful of ingredients. Apart from fish fillets of your choice, the rest of the dish only include onions, tomatoes, curry powder and coconut milk.
Using a medium-sized saucepan or skillet, all you need to do is gently heat up a small chunk of butter until it melts and starts to sizzle softly. Then add in the onions and cook them over low heat, moving them around the pan once in a while to make sure they don’t stick. Once the onions turn slightly transparent, throw in a spoonful of curry powder and stir well, then add in coconut milk and stir some more, still over low heat. See how easy it is to make this curry? It’s the sort of curry that you can use with all types of meats and vegetables of your choice, and in this case, let’s get on with the fish fillets.
After a quick seasoning of the fillets using only a sprinkling of salt and pepper, place the fillets in a baking dish and cover them with the curry you’ve already made. Bake them in the oven until the flesh is white throughout, and then serve with fragrant fresh rice and a sprinkling of parsley.
BAKED CURRY FISH FILLETS (Serves 4)
Adapted from Pelusa Molina
1) 4 fish fillets (I used hake fillets but you can use any type you like)
2) 1 large yellow onion, diced
3) 1 small red onion, diced
4) 1 large tomato, diced
5) 1 cup of coconut milk
6) 1 tablespoon of curry powder
7) 4 bowls of cooked long-grain white rice
8) A handful of roughly chopped parsley (for garnishing)
9) Salt & pepper to taste
10) 30g of butter
11) Ground chilli powder (optional for extra spiciness)
1) Dice yellow onion, red onion and tomato
2) In a saucepan, heat up a little butter and saute the diced onions until the yellow onions turn transparent
3) Add curry powder to the onions and stir well, making sure the curry powder doesn’t get burnt
4) Add diced tomatoes and stir for a few minutes
5) Add coconut milk and mix well over low heat for a couple of minutes
6) Pre-heat oven to 200 deg cel
7) Season fish fillets on both sides with salt & pepper
8) In a baking dish, place two fillets to cover the surface, spread half the curry over the fillets, and repeat with the other two fillets, covering them with the rest of the curry
9) Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes (or until the fish fillets are white throughout)
10) Serve hot with freshly cooked rice and garnish with chopped parsley
Dice yellow onion, red onion and tomato:
In a saucepan, heat up a little butter:
Saute the diced onions:
Until the yellow onions turn transparent:
Add curry powder to the onions:
Stir well, making sure the curry powder doesn’t get burnt:
Add diced tomatoes and stir for a few minutes:
Add coconut milk and mix well over low heat for a couple of minutes:
In a baking dish, place two fillets to cover the surface, spread half the curry over the fillets, and repeat with the other two fillets, covering them with the rest of the curry:
Serve hot with freshly cooked rice and garnish with chopped parsley: