The Story

Adventure Cooking

Indian prawn curry breaks all the rules.

By Lindsay Sterling

Cooking Indian food by myself for the first time felt like skydiving; it went against all my instincts. I had one thing going for me: an Indian woman, Aruna Kilaru, had shown me exactly how to do it two weeks before. Aruna, a botany teacher and principal from Hyderabad, India, had been visiting her daughter and son-in-law in Maine. I met them in of all places, the office supply store Staples. I said I’ve always wanted to learn how to cook Indian food, and I write this column. Would she be interested in teaching me how to cook her favorite food from home?

A couple days later, a couple blocks away in her daughter’s condo, I watched Aruna break countless rules that I’d been taught in my professional cooking career. She sautéed teeny little shrimp for thirty minutes. I would have had a pot thrown at my head for cooking them longer than two. She added thirteen different spices to the meal, making it nearly impossible to taste any one flavor. I’d been taught to keep flavors simple and pure. She threw fresh whole mint leaves and cilantro into her rice cooker. I’d only used them raw, with the exception of brewing peppermint tea.

Aruna cooked for two hours that day as I scribbled notes and asked her questions. She served her family and me spicy rice with peas, mint and carrots with an even spicier thick prawn curry, and cool yogurt sauce. For dessert we had cardamom saffron pudding with cashews and raisins.

Two weeks later after getting some special ingredients at Masala Mahal in South Portland, I stood in my own kitchen alone, facing garlic-ginger paste, bags of dried hot red chilis, black mustard seeds, fresh tiny green Asian chilis, and garam masala. The thing that really daunted me was that her little silver spice spoon had dipped into a container of what she called “chili powder,” but that I call “Aruna’s family magic powder” because it was her family’s own special blend of powdered chili, cumin, coriander, salt and garlic clove. How could I possibly know what proportions to use? I guessed my way through this and other anomalies of my own kitchen: no rice cooker, no super thin cinnamon bark.

To my surprise, the food turned out to be amazing. What was most exciting was that it was unlike anything I’d ever cooked before. My friends swooned. The massive physical pleasure induced by these foods caused me to see my whole cooking life differently. Basically, it positioned me. I was an American cook on the precipice of something I’d never seen before: the whole world of cooking, the wild possibilities of food. I took this lesson to heart: you can break the rules you’ve been taught and create something of astonishing beauty. Though I’ve never been drawn to try the skydiving thing, for the first time I’m starting to see what those crazy cats are up to. So there’s this common rule we all live with: you can’t fly...