The recipe card says Lois, but it should say Louis.
And I should know. Louis was my father, and the recipe is for his famous chicken curry.
Well, I’d better clarify—the curry was famous, but only among a small group of people.
In Louis’s small culinary repertoire, chicken curry was definitely his signature dish.
As in most households during the 1960s, my mother was responsible for preparing food for the table. But she reacted badly to chilli. So if my father wanted to eat curry, it was better all round if he made it.
Try as I might, however, I don’t remember curry from my early childhood. I think that’s because we raised ducks, not chickens, and—it’s strange to think about it now—buying chicken in the grocery store was very expensive in those days. After all, everyone had a few chooks in the backyard.
So no chickens, therefore no chicken curry. My Dad—and not my Mum—cooked the ducks, but not in curries. He braised them. I’ve got the duck recipe, too.
Some background: Louis was a Frenchman from a tiny Indian Ocean island. He said he learned to cook curry from Indians, and sure enough, Indians form the largest demographic group there.
But who were these Indians? In French colonial times, the masters had imported Indians for labour; perhaps that was the ancestral background of the Indians who taught my father their curry recipe. Or perhaps my father met these Indians somewhere else in his travels throughout the world.
The curry includes vinegar, so I wonder if the recipe originated from Goa, a part of India colonised by the Portuguese. They not only introduced India to chilli—having themselves been introduced to it in the Americas—but they also brought along their recipe for carne de vine e albos, which means meat cooked with garlic and wine vinegar. Indians did not make vinegar, “though a similar sour-hot taste was produced using a combination of tamarind and black pepper”, according to Lizzie Collingham’s fascinating history of curry.
Unlike the notoriously hot vindaloo, however, my father’s was mild—although it can be made as hot as you like it. Its rich flavour comes from spices, particularly cloves. which characterise my father’s cooking for me. (Cloves feature in his braised duck recipe, too.)
The curry became semi-famous after my parents divorced. My father was a hospitable man, and—with his limited range of recipes—his invitations to dinner inevitably involved either grilled steak or chicken curry.
As he grew older, he developed diabetes-related blindness and became housebound. He was able to stay in his little home only because of support from a bunch of carers who soon grew to know and love his curry.
Yes, even when legally blind, my father issued dinner invitations. Someone would have to shop for ingredients (this was often my mother, their friendship having transcended their divorce). And then he chopped, diced, stirred and simmered.
He never cut or burnt himself, and was cheerfully negligent of food safety, leaving the cooked curry to cool overnight on the kitchen counter. Remarkably, no one ever became ill.
He also made salty lemon pickles to complement his food, and had an array of bottles, of different vintages, ageing to perfection on his top shelf.
I wish I had his recipe for lemon pickles.
He usually made a tomato and cucumber salad, and had a set way of cooking rice in the microwave.
Somehow he had developed a ritual of offering, as appetisers, canned smoked oysters and crackers, and also frankfurters. And he always brought out a supermarket-brand pie and ice cream for dessert. Even though everyone groaned at the thought of eating one more thing, somehow they seemed to be able to fit it in.
Despite the eccentricity of the food combination, people seemed to enjoy Louis’s meals. It wasn’t until after he died that I realised just how many friends he had made during his final years, and how many people he invited to dinner—how hospitable he had been even though housebound, blind and frustrated by his physical limitations.
I have two different recipe cards with the famous chicken curry recipe. The ingredients are the same but the layout is different. My brother typed one of them on a computer and gave Dad photocopies for handing to guests when they asked. The layout included a few curlicues, added by my brother to make the recipe look a bit more special, and those design elements are evidence of the care that went into the task.
As for the other card, I don’t know who made it up, or even how I came by it. This is the one with “Lois’s Chicken Curry” at the top. It was typed on an old-style typewriter, I’m guessing by someone who didn’t type much—hence the missing letter in Louis’s name.
There were so many people around my father, doing thoughtful and ingenious things for him. I imagine one of them hauling out the typewriter from wherever it was stored, dusting it off and giving it a few tentative taps. That mis-spelling of my father’s name tells me that the typist was out of his or her comfort zone, and the “imperfection” touches my heart with gratitude towards the anonymous typist.
Over the years, I’ve added my own notes to the card. The measurements for some ingredients are vague—“a can of coconut milk”, for example, doesn’t say what size of can. I’ve amended that now, to suit my own taste. I also add red lentils, because I love the taste and texture they add, and, well, they’re good for me too. And although I’m not sure my father would approve, I serve the curry on a bed of cauliflower, chopped fine and steamed, rather than rice. (I’m shocked that I would do this, but the cauliflower really enhances the flavours!)
But with rice or cauliflower, Louis’s curry is one of my favourite comfort foods. With its cinnamon-clove fragrance, it brings back to me my father’s spirit, his outrageous sense of humour, his generosity.
And it also gives comfort by reminding me that, in his final years, my father was surrounded by people who loved his curry and came to his house to eat , to drink too much Scotch, and probably laugh too loudly. And who did kind, thoughtful things for him.
Nevertheless, I just can’t begin the meal with smoked oysters, nor end it with a supermarket apple pie.
Not even to honour the memories.
Revised Recipe for Louis’s Chicken Curry
1 sliced onion
1 tablespoon mild-flavoured oil
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
sprinkle of Five Spice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoon curry powder (Louis had a favourite brand—which a friend sent him from Sydney—but I don’t remember what it was.)
1/2 cup tomato puree (I use a whole 410 gm can of Ardmona Classic Thick and Rich tomatoes and add 1 cup of red lentils)
270 ml can of coconut cream
1.5-1.8 kg chicken pieces (I use a mix of thighs and drumsticks; skin-on is best)
Fry onion in oil in large saucepan.
Add garlic when onion is soft and stir for another minute.
Add all spices and stir in.
Add tomato puree and coconut cream and blend thoroughly.
Add chicken pieces (and lentils if using), cover and cook at low temperature for about 30 minutes. (Stir frequently if using lentils so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.)
When liquid appears, add vinegar.
Cook until chicken is tender.
It’s better cooked a day ahead and reheated. (But please store in the fridge, not on countertop!)
Lizzie Collingham, 2006, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Oxford University Press, New York.