I’ve never been to India, but I consider myself a curry enthusiast.
And I’m fascinated by Indian cuisine. A month or so I spent some time in the kitchen with Mrs. Nimji, an eightysomething neighbour (of sorts) who just happens to have self-published what is now considered the bible of Ismaili cooking, having sold somewhere in the neighbourhood of a quarter million copies. I loved just being in the kitchen with her, watching how she toasted her spices and snipped her almonds in the button-up housedress she used as a full body apron, keeping her outfit immaculate underneath.
She gifted me a jar of her own garam masala and my own masala dabba, a round tin filled with smaller round tins filled with spices, which is like the Indian version of an artists’ palatte. I’ve had it on my countertop, admiring it but not quite ready to delve into it until this weekend, when I got to hang with one Vikram Vij, who y’all may know from his restaurant in Vancouver, and perhaps a few other things. Over dinner he told stories of his start in 1989 in the kitchens at the Fairmont Banff Springs, having just arrived in Canada from his home in Delhi and Mumbai, after his chef’s training in Austria. And of how when he opened up his restaurant in Vancouver in the early nineties, his mother would make pots of her curry and take it on the bus in her lap down to the restaurant, just to be sure it was exactly right. There are no better stories than these.
(He was in Banff helping to celebrate the opening of a new seasonal restaurant called Indian Summer, which is taking over one of the best spaces in the hotel – the upper Rundle Lounge, where Mike and I used to go with W in his carrier and order cocktails mostly for the bowls of warm cashews and stunning mountain views that came with them. As of now it’s being transformed into a restaurant with two recipes created by Vikram and the rest in collaboration with the Fairmont chefs, complete with homemade chutneys and raita and naan, which will be served all summer long.)
On Friday afternoon Vikram cooked his family’s chicken curry, and another with goat and fenugreek and lamb, and talked about the importance of the spices and how it’s not just the quality and variety that makes a difference, but the order in which they go into the pot. He likes to cook the hell out of his onions, deglaze the pan with tomatoes, and finish everything off with a good lob of sour cream and some water – sour cream holds up to the heat and the acid far better than yogurt, which can separate and look curdled. Heavy cream works too.
Within ten minutes of getting home, I pulled out my masala dabba and started cooking. We had a hunk of roasted halibut left over in the fridge – what I love about curries is that you can make them out of anything, including wrinkly veggies or a can of chickpeas, or bulk them up with a diced potato.
I started by cooking the hell out of my onions, then layering the spices, chiles, ginger and garlic – it’s not complicated, but the compilation of ingredients makes all the difference. Both Vikram and Mrs. Nimji use a lot of oil – more than I could bring myself to – and really, you could use chicken or fish or beef or shrimp or even chickpeas or lentils here, and it would be delicious.
canola oil, for cooking
2 onions, finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 Tbsp. chopped ginger
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
2 large chopped tomatoes
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper or chili flakes
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2-1 cup sour cream, stirred
1 cup water
1-2 lb halibut, cut into chunks (or leftover roasted halibut)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (including stems)
Drizzle a generous amount of oil into a large, heavy skillet set over medium-high heat and sauté the onions with the cinnamon stick for 4-5 minutes, until turning golden. Add the garlic, ginger and jalapeno and cook for another few minutes. Add the tomatoes, cumin, coriander, garam masala, turmeric, cayenne, salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, for 5 more minutes, until the tomatoes break down and everything smells fragrant.
Add the sour cream and water and stir until well blended, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When it comes to a simmer, nestle the halibut chunks into the mixture and cook for a few minutes, turning as the fish cooks through, firming up and separating a little into flakes. Cook until the mixture thickens a bit, then remove the cinnamon stick and add the cilantro.
Serve immediately, or let cool and gently reheat later. Serves 4-6.