It’s kind of hard to believe that I’ve avoided writing about the one thing I know how to do pretty well that normal people actually like.

Cooking.

I took cooking for granted before getting into college. Going back even further, my days as a single person pretty much involved little more than lots of running during the day and cooking interesting things while drinking alone and listening to jazz in the evening.

Of course nothing close to that is possible anymore, and I’ve mostly lost my taste for drinking alone. But there’s something special about drinking while cooking. The point here is that I didn’t realize what a luxury it was to be able to just cook for the hell of it.

The other day I nailed a curry. Not just any curry, but my absolute favourite one from an Indian restaurant in town. It was completely off the cuff and improvised, cobbled together from three different recipes that all sounded wrong but somehow managed to mimic almost exactly the thing from the restaurant.

What is it? Hard to say, really. When I stumble over the Indian name for it at the restaurant, the waiter always brushes it off and tells me it’s “butter chicken.” I don’t think it is, to be honest. I used hardly any butter and it tasted almost the same. The name on the menu is murgh malai masala, if I remember correctly. Here’s how I did it:

1 can of coconut millk
1 tsp each of turmeric, dried ginger, cumin powder, dry-toasted cumin seeds, mustard, chili powder
1 tbsp dried coriander
1 lemon
2 tbsp brown sugar
Salt
100ml (approximately) tomato paste
1 onion
800g chicken
Tsp black pepper
Cayenne pepper

As with any curry, you have to start off by frying all those spices listed above in oil. I use a mix of  grapeseed oil and butter, both to keep the calorires in control and to make the butter more resistant to burning. Of course if you’re using ghee like you should, the burning probably isn’t an issue. I don’t have an exact quantity, because I basically just kept adding bits of oil to the spices until it became a paste. After about 5 minutes of medium-heat frying, just add the onion and chicken, fry it for a couple minutes, and add coconut milk and 4 big tablespoons of tomato paste. Let it simmer for 10 mins or so.

I know real recipes are just a set of instructions, but at this point I think you have to use your own palate to get the balance of sugar, salt, and lemon right. The acidity of the tomato needs to be dealt with delicately–if you’ve ever been disappointed by tomato-based jar sauces it’s likely because they seem to universally suffer from this problem. Definitely let the tomato paste settle down for the 10 minutes (or more if you have time, but this isn’t some 70’s slow-cooker deal, remember), then start playing with the right amount of brown sugar and salt. After you balance that, I think the lemon is easy to make work. I just squeezed two halves into it. Once that’s done, just let it simmer for 5 minutes and serve it with rice and naan. Adding a swirl of cream on top at the end can be nice, but I don’t find it necessary. Tossing in some fresh coriander leaves is also a good idea.

The acidity of the tomato, to me, seems quite different to the sour acidity of the lemon. In a tomato-ish curry the former really needs to be contained properly without beating it completely into submission. The success of the spices–which need to pop properly in these dishes–depends on getting that tomato raunch into its proper place. Brightening it up with the lemon is the thing that  makes these flavours  work.

That’s probably a lot of writing for a recipe, but then I don’t write anything if it’s something everyone else has already done . . . Even if it’s a recipe.

My fiancee insists that I mention that tzatziki on the side pushes this dish to the next level. I’ll take her word for it. I’m not into yogurt and the like, except when absolutely necessary, like it is when you make other types of curry.

Another thing: I mentioned above about cutting some of the calories, or at least making some of them unsaturated fats, and I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Cutting back the grease is sometimes a necessary evil, especially when you’re cooking for other people as well. If you can handle a shitload of butter, do it!

I’ll add some photos when I’m less lazy.