Curry is never the same in SA with its diversity
Govender-Ypma travelled around the country to find how curry dishes were adapted by different communities
The following is an extract of food and culture journalist Ishay Govender-Ypma’s new book, Curry — Stories and Recipes from Across SA:
Over the course of years, I travelled to as many corners of the country as I could, guided in many instances by the recommendations of librarians, writers, guides and local organisations — the community selecting their favourite home cooks who make a delicious pot of curry.
While there are a few notable chefs in the book (like Vanie Padayachee —featured), the majority of the people who shared their recipes are home cooks.
The curries I encountered were as diverse as the people in the book — the fiery Kwa-Zulu Natal ‘Durban’ curries, the iKasi and fragrant Cape Malay curries, the Boere kerrie en rys, modern adaptations and the dishes of the immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh preparing food from home, yet so far from home.
While the recipes make this a cookbook, the stories — many dip into the past, about mothers and fathers long gone, about mealtimes shared, sorrows and joys — help construct a portrait of SA’s cooks. I’ve tried to maintain the unique voice of each person — idiosyncrasies of speech and syntax so that the reader would feel like they’re sitting with the cook over tea.
The book examines the history of the term curry and delves into how it might have spread through SA by Indians, Cape Malays and others. We explore the profile of curry across the nine provinces and the nomenclature used —turmeric, borrie, huldee are terms used by different cultural and language groups to denote the same thing, for example.
Curry powder refers to a boxed spice, invented by the British and yet many from Kwa-Zulu Natal use the term to denote masala.
We prepared Marigold head chef and Indian cookery expert Vanie Padayachee’s slow-cooked chicken curry with curry powder to illustrate the physical difference. If a masala would be used, as it most likely would be in her own kitchen, the colour would be red and the heat index higher."
In Curry — Stories and Recipes Across SA, we can see our nation in its complexity through a single dish and its multiple iterations.
"I recall all the Flora margarine tubs. The freezer was full of them. Filled with ginger and garlic paste we made. We would blend turmeric, chillies and curry leaves in there too," says Vanie Padayachee, head chef at the Leeu Collection’s Marigold restaurant in Franschhoek.
"My dad was one of 10 kids. So, there were so many aunts and uncles and cousins. I guess they were always cooking and I gravitated to the kitchen where my mum would be preparing," she says. "That’s where I started cooking too, and learning and asking questions. In the mornings, my mother would take out things from the freezer, like the meat and chicken.
"I knew basically how to cook it, from watching her over weekends and watching dad cook. Dad used to come home from work at 3.30pm and we’d cook together because mom only got home at 5pm.
"Mum and dad were both very good cooks, but I got to eat dad’s food as an adult because mum passed away so many years ago. So I remember mum’s food, but I don’t remember the taste. And with his, I distinctly remember the tastes. It opened my eyes to Indian food and cooking as an adult," she says.
When Vanie, who studied hotel management and cookery, used to come home with some of the food she learned to prepare, her parents were sceptical at first. "I started cooking English food and I wanted them to try. Dishes like pasta, which we never ate at home, and chicken à la king. But they were like ‘Why is it white? Where’s the chilli?’"
Eventually, they started to enjoy more of the foods Vanie was learning to prepare at school, with pickles on the side for flavour. "Even the roast chicken we made at home had masala and Indian spices. Do you know that I had no idea what mayonnaise was until I had to make some at hotel school?’ Vanie asks.
She was one of three Indian students at the time in a class of white colleagues, she says. "I was always curious about food, about what we were eating and what everyone else was eating. From Monday to Wednesday we had theory and brought sandwiches from home. And I’d always ask, ‘What did you bring for lunch?’"
In that way, Vanie got the chance to eat a variety of food that her own parents would never prepare.
After hotel school, Vanie moved to Port Alfred. "I stopped eating curries because nobody else did and I used to get very homesick," she says.
"So, my parents used to come and visit me and cook these big pots of curry and put it in tubs. Then every time I felt homesick, I would take out a tub. I used to still do that until about two months ago. I took out the last tub of curry that my dad made."