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Monday, 20 October 2014

Lessons from a pot of curry

In my previous blog about the benefits of struggle, I referenced the tumultuous relationship I have had with making curry. It’s been a particularly sore point for me, because in a past life I was an Indian goddess with 10 doting husbands and a multi-coloured pet elephant (a girl can dream can’t she?). My real-life travels to India in 2012 awakened my spirit and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t draw some inspiration, wisdom or reflection from that life-changing journey.

When I returned home, one of the things I was most excited about – besides my Hindi chanting CD which is still gathering dust somewhere in my cupboard, and pile of fabric I’ve since turned into scatter cushions - was reliving those special moments through cooking some of the unbelievable Indian food I had indulged in. Melt-in-your-mouth dahl, creamy kidney bean curry, oooh-my-gosh mushroom rogan josh, tikka tofu, paneer koftas, pickled peaches, chapatti’s… my heart swoons just thinking about it!

I tried – a little aloo matter here, a little pistachio korma there – but nothing. It all just tasted like a cheap impression of something else. The Kim K of culinary – one dimensional and quite unspectacular. So I gave up, and went back to a plethora of mac n cheese, soups and salads.

Almost 3 years later, I returned to the mortar and pestle, mostly out of necessity. Sitting on my kitchen windowsill were all the spices a curry cook could ask for. Mementoes of my past failed attempts that glared down on me as I had reached for the oregano and Italian spice mix. Curry is a cuisine that stretches – budgets and plates. The prospect of relatively cheap ingredients (especially for a veggie like me) that feed for days had lured me back to face my nom-nom nemesis.

This time, when I got stuck in my intentions were different and as if whispered to me by the Himalyan mountains (in the voice of my part-time guru Mr. Prakesh obviously), the curry spoke to me.

It said:

  • Do not rush, for patience is part of the process. Each ingredient, each grain of spice, must have its moment to temper and mature.
  • Work from a place of love – love each chopped onion bit, allow each shard of cinnamon to warm your heart, watch the cumin seeds dance in the pan like children playing in a sprinkler, taste, savour and allow to simmer in your soul.
  • Listen to your gut, even if the recipe calls for no more or no less, rebel. Take your own strides forward, let instinct guide you and listen to the flavours when they speak.
  • Seek out fear and challenge it. Try new things, fail at them, and try them again. Learn, improve and adapt.
  • When things get crazy, close your eyes and find your centre again. After all – it’s just a pot of curry!

With these learnings in mind I churned out an out of this world mushroom pilaf with pastry crust, a chana must-have-more masala, delightful dahl and some cracking chapatti’s! I realised curry making was my meditation and my new favourite thing to do on a Saturday night. Yeah I said it.

As I crunched on my last poppadum I got to thinking about timing, and the cosmos and how learning to make a good curry was actually a way for me to embrace the unmet challenges I had deemed as disappointments. So often in life we seek immediate resolve and instant achievement, and when that doesn’t happen we assume we suck (well I do). We then revert to a new goal, adjust our bearings and veer away from what we perceive to be failure. Now I’m not saying this is always a bad thing, sometimes we need a nudge in a new direction and often it’s our failings that push us thereto. But I think a lot of the time we are unable to push through obstacles because we are not yet armed with the tools needed to do so. Our skills haven’t tempered, our hearts aren’t boiling over with love, we feel the need to stick strictly to a tried and tested recipe, we’re too scared to face up to real challenges and fail, we want to fast forward experiences and when things get a little crazy we fall apart. And then we’re super bummed when the end product is a decidedly average bowl of goop.

It goes back to a profound albeit cliché philosophy that I sometimes forget: everything happens exactly as it should. So if, like me, you have moments where you feel you’ve missed the mark or have lost sight of your dreams just think of it as a few more years you need to spend in culinary school. Honing your skills, clearing the path for opportunity, extracting all you can from experience and leaving some space for serendipity. 

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