Finding Kinship in a Pot of Curry
One simple recipe ties three generations of Indian women.
When I go home from work today, I will make a simple Bengali chicken curry. I will pick up curry-cut chicken on the way home, along with tomatoes, ginger, and coriander. By the time I arrive at my apartment, at around half past six, I will slump down onto the bed and try to convince myself to order takeout.
But eventually, I will enter the kitchen. I will coat the chicken with turmeric, red chilli powder, and salt. Some are repulsed by raw chicken, but I will massage oil and spice into the cold, pink flesh with a strange, carnal delight. I will chop rhythmically, onions, ginger and garlic, tomatoes. After browning the chicken, I’ll slide them all into the same sputtering oil (butter, if I’m feeling feisty). When the tomatoes unfurl into a viscous fluid, I will add more of the same spices, the chicken, potatoes, water, and watch the curry come together.
This is the only recipe I know by heart; my mother gave it to me, after receiving it from her mother. It renders a curry so flavorful it’s hard to believe there are only two spices in it. It is stunningly delicious. Because the ingredients are so simple, the method is of utmost importance. When I cook it for friends — the times I get it right, that is — they wonder how such a humble recipe could produce this depth of flavor.
But I prefer to eat it alone, because beyond its incredible taste, I associate this particular chicken curry with family, and specifically the women in my family. This curry is infused with the feeling of my mother and my grandmother. When I eat it, I can only think of them. It’s the closest I will ever get to understanding what it’s like to have synesthesia; the ability to taste a song, or smell an emotion.
My grandmother invented this recipe. She didn’t learn it from her mother; her side of the family did not eat chicken. When she married my grandfather, who loved chicken, she had to create her own curry recipe. But my grandmother never ate chicken herself. She tried it once, and decided it wasn’t for her. It boggles my mind that this chicken curry recipe, which I find far superior to any other in the world for its simultaneous sophistication and simplicity, was never tasted by the woman who invented it.
The tradition of passing recipes down through the women in a family is a fraught one. It seems outdated; certainly the idea that a man isn’t going to be involving himself in such domestic affairs as cooking has no place in the 21st century. But at the same time, this tradition is one reminiscent of the many other things I’ve learned from my two biggest female role models. My mother, in addition to passing me this recipe, also gifted me her unwavering feminism. And my grandmother, who taught my mother this conviction even when misogyny was largely going unnoticed, always reminded me to never feel sorry for putting myself first.
If, while making the curry, things start to go awry, I will make a call (or four) to my mom. Are the potatoes cut too thick, is there enough gravy? It’s easy to call her. But when she first sent me the recipe for the curry over email, we lived in different time zones. For several years I lived 15,000 kilometers away from my family. I put down all my roots in the United States, but it was important to me that I took the chicken curry.
I went to specialized Indian grocery stores to hunt down the correct spices, the right cut of chicken. It became a ritual of self-care. I cooked it with groups of friends large and small, I made it for myself after work. In the early years, it was anybody’s guess whether it would turn out well or not. I couldn’t call my mom while I was making it, unless I wanted to wake her at 4am. Once, it was too bitter (too much turmeric). Once, the gravy wasn’t thick enough (I had forgotten the potatoes). Once, I added sugar instead of salt. That time, I almost cried. But whenever I got it right, I actually cried.
These days, my results are more consistent, but I now have the option of carrying batches of frozen curry over from my mother’s house, which is only an hour away by plane. But I still like to make it myself sometimes. For years, I watched my mother and grandmother toil over stoves, stirring away at curries and dals and rice puddings. This is my way of replicating and paying homage to their years of labor.
Tonight, rather than turning to my usual way of eating dinner (in front of the TV, half-consciously forking a bowlful of reheated food into my mouth), I will eat the chicken curry at the table, with my hands. The smell will linger in my kitchen for several hours. My fingers will be stained yellow into the next day. I don’t mind. I like being reminded of my chicken curry. It is comforting, gentle, and nourishing. It is an embodiment of the women who, in caring for me, taught me how to care for myself.
Urvija Banerji is the Features Editor at The Swaddle, and has previously written for Rolling Stone India and Atlas Obscura. When she's not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, painting, cooking, picking fights online, and consuming large amounts of coffee (often concurrently).