It’s not often I’m moved to do a second blog post in a day, but I felt I needed to share this beautiful video of Nina Simone singing “I Love You Porgy” from 1962. Last night I attended a concert as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival that was a tribute to Nina Simone with Patti Austin, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Simone, Nina’s daughter singing some of her better known songs. I’m a big fan of Nina Simone and we often play her albums at Moustache, but seeing her songs performed live was a revelation- especially by Dianne Reeves who deserves her own blog post. I must have listened to “I Love You Porgy” hundreds of times now, but when I came home last night and watched Nina Simone’s 1962 performance on YouTube it was like hearing it for the first time, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was in tears at the end of it. Here it is.
One of the unanticipated pleasures of giving up meat is discovering all the food you had passed over on the way to the butcher’s counter. I’ve always been a vegetable lover, but buying vegetables as a side dish for a steak or chicken or piece of fish is an entirely different exercise than buying them for an entire meal. I am lucky to live in Hong Kong, where a cultural fetish for freshness, a pretty significant vegetarian tradition, and a seeming obliviousness to the mania for locally grown produce that has – for better and for worse- gripped much of the rest of the world , means that the city’s wet markets and supermarkets are stocked with all manner of beautiful fruits and vegetables from the world over. And while I may hesitate, say, before a shrink wrapped head of lettuce from California, I feel no such qualm about purchasing a bag of giant shitake mushrooms from Japan, even though China is no slouch in the mushroom department. Life is a series of compromises, right? And for a household of Japan obsessed vegetarians, I’m sorry to say the temptations are too great in Hong Kong, where fancy=Japanese, especially when setting out to beat the freakishly cold winter with a Japanese curry- as close as one gets to a beef stew without killing a cow. While we did not originally intend that every single ingredient for the dish be imported from Japan, once we began to realize it was indeed possible, it became kind of a game, and while I won’t dismiss out of hand the possibility of the “placebo effect”, I really do think the final dish tasted more authentic- well, as authentic as a vegetarian version of a dish barely a decade old and usually prepared from a prefab grocery store mix can taste. In any case, it was delicious, and as I am relatively certain it will taste almost as good with whatever vegetables you have on hand, regardless of their provenance, I will share with you the secret to this very easy, very tasty supper. Save it for a cold night; you won’t regret it.
The first thing to note about a Japanese curry is that it is sweet. That’s not to say it isn’t a bit spicy too, but while you don’t add chili, you do grate an apple over the it at the end of cooking. The curry powder pictured above, which I really bought for the can alone, is not so different than an Indian or English curry powder, but it does have mandarin orange peel in it. IN any case, any curry powder or blend of Indian spices or garam masala will do, as will any assortment of vegetables, though personally I can’t imagine it without big chunks of carrots.
We also added potatoes, eggplant, radish, the afore-mentioned shitake mushrooms, some deep fried bean curd (the only, I think, locally produced ingredient), leeks and, of course, onions. You start off caramelizing the onion, and this takes twenty minutes or so, before adding the carrot, letting it cook for 10 or 15 minutes of so, and finally the other vegetables – save the bean curd- a bit of tomato paste or ketchup, whatever seasoning agents you want to use, and a few cups of water. While you let this simmer away for a while, melt a quarter cup of butter in a saucepan on another burner and add a quarter cup of flour to make a roux. After it’s a cooked a bit and gone a nice, nutty brown, add a teaspoon or so of tonkatsu sauce, or failing that, some worcestershire: this will cause the roux to coagulate into what looks like a pan of loamy soil, at which point you can take it off the heat and add it to your simmering pot of curry. After you’ve folded in the roux, add the bean curd, shred your apple on top, give it all a good stir and let the whole pot cook for twenty minutes or so, watching that the vegetables don’t go too mushy, but that your gravy gets nice and thick. Another pleasure of vegetarian cooking is that you don’t need to worry so much about under cooking, so it’s really to your taste when you take it off the heat. We actually turned the heat off and let it sweat while we prepared the rice- this from Thailand, as cooking Japanese rice is apparently an artform that we have not yet mastered. To “Japanify” it a bit, though, Ellis sprinkled some strips of dried seaweed and black sesame on top: brilliant!
While nothing would give me more pleasure than to show you a photograph of the finished curry, a ravenous dinner party and a photographer host that had perhaps been a little freer than he should have been with the sake (such small cups!) is not a conducive environment for blog photography; but on second thought, if this lack of photographic evidence is any incentive for you readers to prepare this dish yourself, then my job is done. I can, by way of compensation, offer you two things: this photo, taken much earlier in the evening, of our “pudding”- prepared by the marvelously talented pastry chef Jen Kentrup: a peach and blackberry pie and cream puffs.
And this video, which is how we learned to make the curry in the first place (you didn’t really think I got that all of the top of my head?) Thank god for YouTube!