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Adding salt to the great curry debate

Curried mince

Tomatoes and curry go together like bread and jam. They’re made for each other. Add onion and garlic and you have the canvass on which to paint a thousand curries, whether for lamb, mutton, beef, chicken or fish. As long as you have your cheery trio of tomatoes, onion and garlic, and a mélange of whatever spices you fancy using, you’re well on your way to making a killer curry. Just remember to add salt.

The debate over whether a curry should be salted or not floors me. The topic comes up now and then in “foodie” circles at those lunches or “chef’s table” dinners where everyone is on their culinary mettle, either desperate to impress or not to make a gastronomic fool of themselves.

It really should not matter how well you know your culinary terminology because, as I like to point out, anyone can open any page of Larousse Gastronomique, the French culinary bible, and there will be several terms that even the most informed gourmand will not know. Becoming fully informed is an infinite quest. No lifetime is long enough to complete the task.

So there is no need to be embarrassed if you don’t know what kataifi is, or a mille feuille, or for that matter what the precise ingredients are of your ubiquitous “fish masala” (there’ll be a thousand recipes for that, at least). Or the difference between masala and marsala. Just as long as you look it up and use it correctly when writing about it.

Yet at such gatherings inevitably there will be somebody who insists that a curry should never be salted, and I generally shut up and leave them to drone on about it, while being tempted to say, “Why don’t you just taste the curry you’ve made and your palate will give you the answer?”

Because that is the only thing we cook for, other than sustenance. Our palates. You can have sustenance from eating anything nutritious that doesn’t poison you, but it’s the palate that decides how well you’re enjoying your life-nurturing meal.

Any any palate worth its salt will tell you that your curry needs to be finished off with a little fillip of salt. And yes, my Indian friends do concur on this.

What’s to debate? Of course a curry needs salt. It just perks up every last flavour in the pot. It’s like the dot at the end of a piece of perfect prose, the crossing of the T.

The only exceptions I can think of would be the kind of Thai or Vietnamese curries which contain fish sauce, that intense distillation of essences that is foul to the nose but adds a hard-to-define zing to the end product. And no, Daisy, soy sauce does not belong in a curry. Not on this planet anyway. If it did, salting would not be necessary. But it doesn’t.

In KwaZulu-Natal recently I stocked up on a few of the basic curry preparations that make life worth living for a palate that is addicted to the hot stuff. Among them was some roasted coriander powder (ground from seeds) and a heady “Durban curry” masala of the kind that can be used for all manner of meats, depending on quantities.

Once back home, it was that lean post-holiday time of the month, so some lean beef mince seemed a sensible choice. Beef mince is an excellent medium for curry, often ignored and more often found in a samoosa than on the plate. But try this, it turned out very well.

Curried mince with tomatoes

1kg lean beef mince

1 large or 2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 Tbs fennel seeds

3 bay leaves

2 star anise

1 piece of cassia bark (a.k.a. stick cinnamon)

1 Tbs mustard seeds

1 tsp onion seeds

3 generous Tbs green tomato chutney or another chutney of your choice

3 dried red chillies with their seeds, finely chopped

2 or 3 heaped Tbs Durban masala or other curry mix

30 to 50 baby tomatoes, halved (depending on their size, Daisy)

Salt to taste

Simmer the fennel seeds, star anise, bay, cassia and mustard seeds, in ghee (clarified butter) or butter over a gentle heat until the seeds start to pop like rice crispies. Add the onion (kulunji) seeds and stir for a minute. Add the chopped onion and garlic and sauté, stirring, until soft. Add the finely chopped chillies and cook for another minute.

Now add the halved baby tomatoes – don’t count them, Daisy, suffice to say that they are a central ingredient of this curry and that you need loads and loads – and stir into the spicy onion mix. This is when you need to add your heaped tablespoons either of a Durban curry masala or whatever curry mix you fancy using.

Pick up lumps of the raw beef mince with a clean hand and crumble it in with your fingers. Use a spatula to fold the mince into the onion mix until everything is melded.

Cover and leave it to simmer gently for about 40 minutes, lifting the lid now and then to stir and ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. The juices from the tomatoes will build up during the cooking time so that the curry becomes quite ‘wet”. You should not need to add water, but if you do, go easy, as it will dilute the flavour. I didn’t and found that there was enough liquid from the tomatoes. (Another way to add liquid to a curry is to use grated carrot, although I don’t much like carrot in a curry.)

Salt, tasting until it’s just right to your palate, simmer for another few minutes, and serve.

I served mine with red cargo rice, a long-grain rice that gets its name for the old habit of transporting it by cargo ship in its raw state before being packaged and sold. It makes a good carrier for a curry too.

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