Being Creative with Curry

I consider myself to be a reasonably good cook and am quite able to throw together a stir-fry, sate or a very tasty nasi goreng. But my talents don’t just end there!. Mexican, Spanish and Italian are also in my repertoire, but, when it comes to curries, I am hopeless!. I just can’t seem to get the right flavour despite the fact I use fresh and original ingredients.

When I was in India a long time ago in a place called Bombay (now Mumbai) I used to drool over the flavoursome curries created there. In Indonesia the curries are different and definitely much tastier but don’t tell my Indian friends I said that. Indonesia’s top epicurean and gastronome el supremo, Suryatini N. Ganie, explains about curries in Indonesia:

Since early childhood I have been familiar with kare, a Javanese term for curry. Our then-cook made the kare Jowo (Javanese curry) every week as a main soupy dish. It goes well with other dishes, such as tempe bacem, tempeh and the crunchy kerupuk udang.

The kare jowo was made by grinding shallots, garlic, fresh turmeric, coriander, salt and brown sugar and perhaps with two red chilies to add some pungent flavor.

The whole bunch was then smoothly ground on a cowek (traditional grinding utensil) and put into the pot along with some thick coconut milk.

A slice freshly pounded lengkuas (galangal) and one or two salam leaves were added. When the liquid came to the boil, the cook put a piece of beef or chicken into it and a handful of 2 centimeter long French beans.

She would for a few minutes and then add slices of carrots, cabbages and potato cubes to the broth, while constantly stirring them to prevent the coconut milk from curdling.

The cook usually served this dish for lunch. That kare Jowo is a sweet memory of my youth and to this day I prepare it when we want to have some nostalgic old-fashioned Javanese home cooking.

As I become more oriented in culinary arts, I realize that various curry preparations exist in Indonesia. And even the kare Jowo has other alternative ingredients.

When it comes to curry in Indonesia, some curries here have various names and spellings due the many languages and dialects.

The Javanese say kare, and the North Sumatran say kari and other regions say both. There are curry with very distinctive names, adopting the name of the region or land of origin, such askari Palembang and kari Aceh.

Other curries are named for the ethnic groups, like the kare Koja. Koja means Arab, that kind of curry is mostly made in regions where many Middle Eastern people live. The kare Koja originated from Semarang. The kare Malabar and kare Kebab were popular curry preparations in the 1930s.

The people from Jepara, once a busy port of incoming Middle Eastern people, gave the kare Koja a Javanese name jangan Arab (a soupy dish from the Arabs).

An interesting curry name is the kare Japan. According to an auntie who was an expert in curries, the curry was a favorite of the Japanese immigrants before the Second World War.

Kare Cina originated in the Pecinan (Chinatown, where the Chinese immigrants live) and sometimes made by stir frying with lard. Whereas both curries were popular among Javanese, the kare Portugis sprung up in the eastern islands where the Portuguese donas taught their staff how to make curry.

I myself enjoy the curry combination which I named kare MC in honor of my dear Singaporean friend Margaret Chan, who is a superb cook, food writer and actress.

These are the ingredients: 1200 g coriander seeds, 425 g cumin seeds, 285 g aniseeds, 425 g dried chilies, 140 g turmeric, 140 g white peppercorns, 75 g cinnamon, 40 whole cloves, 3 whole nutmegs, 50 whole cardamoms, 2 star anise.

The method: wash the coriander, cumin and aniseeds separately. Drain well and dry in the sun together with the chilies. Toast all other ingredients in an oven for 30 to 45 minutes until they become aromatic. Mix all ingredients together and grind in a mill to a fine powder, store in an air-tight bottle.