In Hong Kong, there is one building in particular that stands out to me still when I think about curry. The Repulse Bay: sky blue exterior, long and curved like the back of the snake, with pepto-pink balconies all the up like scales. In the very middle of this building is a square hole. Yes, a hole, a very large, square hole outlined in daisy yellow, and a legend to go with it, which I wrote about in my thesis during grad school.
“Under one of Hong Kong’s southern mountains above the sea, there is a dragon. In between him and the sea, there is The Repulse Bay building, and the architects made the hole in the building large enough for the dragon to pass through without damaging the building itself. On nights when the dragon gets thirsty, usually on the nights when the moon is able to shine through the fog and pollution of the sky, he will emerge from the entrance of his home where his scales will shine sea-foam, climb through the square of the building down to the sea, and drink his fill, sighing heavily with one steamy breath of satisfaction before going back through the square and up the mountain to return to sleep. At least, this is what I was told. On mornings when the air is hot and thick and sticky, the old men on the beach will say that the tide is a little lower than normal so the dragon must have been out and about last night, asking each other if they happened to see the telltale glint of scales against moon and water. Some joke and say they have seen him, that he’s magnificent, while I have stayed on this beach through the night numerous times and have only seen black waves tipped with white foam wash against gritty, golden sand.”
Now, this isn’t about the dragon, although I have a mild obsession with all things fantastical, but about the building and what it holds. Funny thing about Hong Kong, square footage is a very expensive commodity, and if you have it, you capitalize on it, turning your first few floors at your respective ground level—since all the buildings are built skyward, your ground level could be close to the water, or hidden by the trees near the top of a peak—into boutiques, grocery stores, restaurants, spas, and private clubs, with the residential units shooting skyward toward the clouds. The Repulse Bay, being one of the larger compounds on the island, did all of the above with their available square footage, and this is where we find ourselves at Spices Restaurant. This is where my experience and my love of curry started, but hopefully not where it ends.
In Chicago, I still have yet to find the same experience—not physically of course, because that would be impossible, but rather the culinary experience I get when I eat the food, spend time with it—and I’m not sure I ever will. There was a boldness at Spices that played with heat, dancing with it almost before letting it breathe life into their sauces, rather than just throwing heat in a pan and letting it rampage throughout the dish. It’s almost a process of taming, which added a richness to each curry in its own unique way. Duck curry has a sharp kick, beef is bold and a little on the daring side, chicken curry is silky and just slightly sweet with a tap of tang, but lamb curry, Rogan Josh, that was always my absolute favorite. Tender, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of lamb in a smooth, hot rusty red sauce. Not burn your face off hot, just a nice rush over your whole being, comfortable kind of hot, the kind that makes you want to get cozy in an over-sized sweater in the afternoon of an early spring or late fall. You could taste the cardamon and cloves are chatting with the ginger and masala, almost playfully arguing, while the chilies as mediating, swaying from one side to the other as they talked. I can still smell the herbs singing off the steam of my curry, just bubbling away in its little copper bowl. [Is my creative writing side overdoing this just a little?]
So of course, when I got the craving for curry over the weekend, I thought, why not make it? Sure, it won’t have the same panache as going out and getting the true basmati rice and the copper bowls, but this way at least I could have the chance of revisiting my past, reliving a culinary moment I will never forget, if only for one bite. And for me, that would be enough.
Quick Chicken Tikka Masala
Adapted from Cooking Classy recipe
You may notice it says “Quick” and while, yes, curry should normally never be a quick thing, it was Friday night, I wanted curry for dinner, and given that I work full time and don’t have all night, I needed it to be quick…to be fair though, it turned out DELICIOUS!
Also, for the Naan, I did buy the pre-packaged variety that most grocer’s have in the bakery section, but to make it pop, I brush it with a little melted butter & garlic (minced) sauce. To make it: put the garlic & butter in the same bowl, and microwave or melt over the stove till butter is completely melted and hot, then brush it on and make your Naan!
Lastly, I like to eat saffron rice with my curry, but I strongly urge you not to make saffron rice in a rice cooker…as you can see from the photos, it’s just a little on the orange side, rather than bright and yellow like it should be! I thought I would cut a corner there, but have very much learned my lesson.
- One 1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1/2 large yellow onion, peeled
- 1.5 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite sized cubes (about 1 inch)
- 1 1/2 tablespoon tikka masala spice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided (or ghee, if you have it!)
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 1/2 tsp ground paprika
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, more or less to taste
- 1-1 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, to taste
- 1-2 teaspoons ground coriander, to taste
- 1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
- 6 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (I used fat-free, any kind will work fine though)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
- 1 cup peas, fresh or thawed (if frozen)
- Cooked jasmine, basmati, or saffron rice, for serving
- Naan bread, for serving
- Pulse ginger and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Add onion and pulse until finely chopped.
- Toss chicken with the tikka masala spice mix and 1 tsp salt. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook through, about 6 – 7 minutes total. Transfer chicken to a plate.
- Heat remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion mixture and saute until onions have softened, about 3 minutes.
- Add tomato paste, turmeric, paprika, coriander, and cayenne, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds. Add crushed tomatoes and crushed cardamom pods, season with salt to taste, and cook, stirring occasionally until mixture is hot, about 2 minutes (you can let it simmer longer if needed if the canned tomatoes used were watery. If the canned tomatoes were thick you can add a few Tbsp of water if needed to thin the sauce mixture).
- Return chicken to pan and cook 1 minute longer.
- Remove from heat, stir in Greek yogurt and lemon juice. Serve warm over rice topped with cilantro and peas, and warm Naan bread on the side.
Note: Don’t eat the cardamom pods, just discard them as you find them.