Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Taste of Home

Tricomalee-style Crab Curry

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

They say that you can never go home again. In some ways, the business of growing up and growing old is about coming to terms with this reality. The place you miss, the place you crave, the place where you truly belong–that place no longer exists, if it ever did. Perhaps this is so for everyone, but for us rootless cosmopolitans who belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, the old adage is a truth that defines our lives.

No wonder the smells and tastes of childhood are so powerful; they take us as close to home as we can get, however fleeting the experience may be. In Sri Lanka, our relatives in Negombo would make platters of curry with enormous lagoon crabs whenever our family would come to visit. As a child, I could never eat crab curry without getting the curry all over my hands and wrists, dirtying the glass of water I had to keep handy to douse the fire that burned my lips and tongue. An uncle looked on in wordless disgust–he himself possessed the remarkable ability to dismantle a crab with the fingertips of one hand, keeping even his palm clean. (Breaking things apart while keeping his hands clean was a specialty of this particular uncle of mine, but that is a story for another time and venue.)

In North Carolina, making this crab curry was an all-day family event, beginning with an early morning trip to the docks to catch the crabs ourselves. The tide had to either be going out or coming in. If the water level was too low, the crabs would have retreated to deeper waters; too high, and you couldn’t see when they began nibbling at their chicken neck bait. My mother, who only likes to spend time outdoors if there’s a great meal waiting at the end of it, was particularly good at tricking the crabs into her net. Then came the nasty part, from which my sister and I were thankfully excused: maiming the crabs by pulling off their claws and killing them by tearing off their top shells. Once as a teenager, I got stuck with this task when my dad was out of town. I was revolted, but it taught me that I could indeed live up to one of my maxims: don’t eat anything you couldn’t kill yourself. The reward for all this labor came when the large mound of crabs was brought to the table, steaming hot, bathed in a fiery curry fragrant with roasted coconut and spices.

Crack into a crab claw, suck out the mingled juices of the crab and coconut milk. Dig into the sweet flesh of the crab’s body, coated with the dark flavor of roasted coconut, chile, and coriander. Eating crab is a primal experience; you have to get your hands dirty.

How does it taste? It tastes of the sea, of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It tastes of lands both far and near. It’s the taste of the familiar, of family, and of childhood. It tastes of home.

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

Serves four.

Part I: Making the masala
3/4 c. unsweetened dried coconut (you may also use fresh)
1 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
6 fresh curry leaves
2 tbsp. coconut milk

Combine the dried coconut, fennel, pepper, and curry leaves and roast in dry skillet over medium-high fire, stirring constantly, until coconut is the color of, I hate to say it, hamster shavings.

Let mixture cool and grind in a blender with 2 tbsp. coconut milk.

Part II: The Curry
1 med. onion, sliced thinly
1/2 piece of ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 curry leaves
2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 tbsp. Jaffna or Trincomalee-style curry powder (see note)
1 tsp. paprika
1/2-2 tsp. cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tbsp. tamarind pulp, soaked in hot water
1 c. coconut milk
fresh lime juice, to taste
salt, to taste

Heat oil in 6 quart pot. Saute onion, garlic, ginger, and curry leaves until onions begin to color (about 7 minutes). Add curry powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, one teaspoon salt and stir. Cook 1 minute more. Squeeze tamarind pulp and add tamarind water to pot. Add dried coconut masala and coconut milk. Stir and cook 10 minutes, until curry is thick. Taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt, cayenne and/or lime if necessary.

Part III: Cleaning the Crabs

Crab Carcasses

18 Atlantic blue crabs (You may also use Pacific Dungenous, but use fewer crabs)
1 tsp. turmeric

With a pair of tongs, lift each crab out of the bag. Be sure it’s alive and kicking. If it seems to be dead, discard. Here comes the nasty bit. Carefully grasp crab from the back with your left hand. Cover your right hand in a dish towel and pry it’s claws off and reserve. Then, on a flat surface, turn the crab upside down, hold the top shell down with your left hand, and, grasping the crab’s legs with your right hand, pull the body away from the top shell. This kills the crab far more quickly humanely than the barbaric American custom of dropping them alive into boiling water.

Discard top shell. Under running water, pull off the “dead man’s fingers” that cover the body. Clean out any dark green matter and the pink organs (anyone know what these are?). However, reserve the orange eggs from the female crabs. Last, either with a large knife or your hands, split the two sides of the crab in two.

When you’ve done about half of the crabs, sprinkle with a dusting of turmeric. Sprinkle another dusting of turmeric when you’ve finishing cleaning all the crabs.

Add crabs to curry. Stirring and tossing occasionally, cook over medium heat for ten minutes.

Serve with white rice and accompaniments.

Note: Jaffna-style curry powder may be ordered here. You can make Trincomalee-style curry powder by roasting dried whole chilies and coriander seeds separately, grinding in a spice grinder and combining. Use 2 parts dried chilies to 1 part coriander seed (measure by weight). Do not even think of using any other kind of curry powder, particular not the foul substance sold at Western grocery stores.

9 Comments

Filed under gluten-free, South Asian

Jamaican Locavore

I have a thing for coconut water. Sometimes, in the middle of a hot, humid, American summer, I feel like I’ll just die if I don’t have a coconut right then. So I compromise and have a can of oversweetened Thai coconut juice. Does it taste good? No. But somehow, it assuages the craving.

So, when I’m in the tropics, I make sure to have as many coconuts as possible. As soon as I got off the plane, I asked our taxi driver if we could stop and have a coconut: jelly, as it’s called in Jamaica. And it was good. Sweet without added sugar, sipped straight from the shell with a straw. And after your belly it full of the coconut water, have the coconut split open for you, a makeshift spoon carved out of a piece of the shell, and scrape the young coconut jelly directly from the shell. Heaven.

Honestly, it was worth the price of the plane tickets alone just to have one coconut a day for six days.

Coconuts aside, no report on Jamaican cuisine would be complete without jerk. I’ve made jerk before, but jerk was meant to be eaten seaside, appetite sharpened by a morning of swimming and sun,
the scent of wood smoke on the breeze. In these seaside shacks, the meat is slowly smoked over embers of the allspice tree, which impart their distinctive flavor to the meat. I went around and tasted the sauces of all the jerk stands at Boston Beach. When I found the best, I flattered and flirted and tried in vain to extract a recipe from the proprietor. No such luck. At least I brought a bottle back for Kassie and CJ, who looked after my cats while I was gone.

Our most memorable meal, however, was in a seaside shack in the quiet fishing village of Manchioneal. On the heels of yet another fruitless expedition, we stopped in Manchioneal on the way back to Port Antonio, ravenous. The locals said that the best restaurant in town was Dada West. “That’s the name of the restaurant?” I asked. “No, that’s the name of the person who cooks there.”

Dada West’s could only be loosely termed a restaurant. It was a tin roof shack with a floor of sand and an enormous stereo system pumping reggae beats to the breeze. In the immaculate kitchen, Dada West cooks up pots of lobster curry, fish stew, and red beans and rice. We laid waste to plates of sweet and sour fish stew within minutes. For dessert, I had tucked a stolen mango from that morning. Dada West lent us a scotch bonnet pepper and some salt, and watched incredulously as my dad cut into the hard, green mango. He was good enough to try a slice, sour as a green apple and fiery with chile. I’m not sure he will be munching on green mangoes himself anytime soon, but it was nice to share something with him after he fed us so well.

It only occurred to me after I returned home how very ascetic our diet in Jamaica was in some ways. Portland was the most lush place I’ve ever been. Look up, and the trees above your head are heavy with bananas, ackee, star and sour apples. The sea teems with fish. We ate local vegetables simply stewed with fish for breakfast lunch and dinner. The funny thing is that I never missed butter, dairy or rich food. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps I was fish-starved from living in the Midwest. Perhaps, I just fell in love with Jamaica, its people, and the food that comes from its land and sea.


6 Comments

Filed under Travel