The Complete Curry Cookbook is the seventh in a series of cookbooks by celebrated Australian cook Charmaine Solomon, and one of several co-authored with her husband Reuben. A native of Sri Lanka, Charmaine turned a penchant for cooking into a thirty-odd cookbooks and a successful line of custom spice blends and marinades. Like Diana Kennedy, Ms. Solomon is something of a culinary missionary and is often credited with having introduced authentic Asian cuisine to Australian home cooks. Even at the height of her popularity Ms. Solomon viewed herself as a “homemaker who likes cooking better than the other aspects of housekeeping”. Husband Reuben is a musician by trade but an “appreciative audience” and business partner. As of this writing Charmaine Solomon is still living, although no longer actively writing or cooking. Reuben passed away in 2009.
I picked up my copy of The Complete Curry Cookbook at a Goodwill in Oregon sometime in the early 2000s, during my starving student years. I had no context for Mrs. Solomon’s reputation or acclaim. My needs were simple. I had a young family with an adventuresome palate that exceeded our modest budget, and we found that a small upfront investment in spices paid dividends long term. For a few dollars we could put together a delicious and filling meal from a couple of cans of chickpeas or dried lentils. We were also starting to explore spicier foods, in part to combat the nasty head colds that seemed to plague our family for the first several years we lived in Pacific Northwest. The Complete Curry Cookbook, along with A Taste of the Far East, were well-worn resources during our student years. Twenty years later we’re out of school and the head colds are long gone but our appetite for spicy curries has only grown stronger.
The proper title for this book would be The Complete Indian and Southeast Asian Curry Cookbook; home chefs looking for Japanese or Chinese curries will come up empty-handed. From a marketing perspective it would be perfectly awful title, but it’s a more accurate reflection of its contents. And with regards to these specific cuisines it very nearly earns the “complete” in the title, something few cookbooks are able to do. The opening chapter provides recipes for fifteen different curry powders and pastes, but these are used sparingly in the recipes that follow. Most of the nearly hundred curry variants in the pages that follow have their own customized spice blends. “Complete” may be unattainable, but the Solomons’ collection is certainly exhaustive.
Outside of the dust jacket there is little context and precious few illustrations or photographs. The reader is given some general guidance on serving and preparing curries, including tips for regional variants. The recipes that follow are thoughtfully written, but assume some familiarity with the introductory material. This can make The Complete Curry Cookbook quite intimidating, in that many recipes seem like impossibly long lists of ingredients with very little direction on their proper preparation. But don’t be put off. Start with some of the shorter recipes and work your way through until you get the hang of it.
The core of the book are the curry recipes, with individual chapters for meat, seafood, poultry, and vegetable curries. There are over a dozen different beef curries and nearly twice as many chicken curries, along with recipes for liver and offal curries of various animals. The seafood curries run the gamut from basic white fish in coconut milk to all manner of shellfish. The vegetable chapter is the shortest but the most varied, with recipes incorporating squash, legumes, eggplant, and potatoes. There is little repetition: the lamb and pork vindaloo recipes, for example, are entirely different. A creative home chef might easily find endless variations by mixing and matching sauces with proteins.
There are also two excellent chapters on accompaniments. One chapter is devoted to starches, and includes instructions for properly preparing rice as well as recipes for a variety of Indian flatbreads. The other focuses on condiments, including chutneys and sambal, or vegetable side dishes.
This book, more than anything, taught me how to coax the flavor out of my spices: when to toast spices dry, when to cook them in oil, and when to use whole spices instead of ground (hint: almost always). The individual recipes are, by and large, exceptional but the short course on technique has been more valuable in the long term.
The only challenge that the home chef may face is finding some of the recommended ingredients. I live within spitting distance of a half-dozen high quality Indian markets, but realize not everyone has such an embarrassment of riches. Even in my area ingredients like fresh galangal or candle nuts can still be difficult to come by, and there are several ingredients for which there is no acceptable substitute. There are still many dozens of recipes that can be prepared from ingredients in Western supermarkets, but there are a few that always seem tantalizingly out of reach.
One of the more interesting (and less intimidating) recipes in The Complete Curry Cookbook is the Fried Pork Curry. Pork may seem an unusual ingredient for a curry, given that many of the predominant religions in Asia forbid it. And while it is certainly off-limits for observant Hindus and Muslims, pork is quite common in Southeast Asian cuisine. In addition to the Fried Pork Curry, The Complete Curry Cookbook offers recipes for four other pork curries from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Burma, plus a pork vindaloo recipe from non-vegetarian populations in South India.
In the traditional recipe the pork is cubed and slow cooked in a thick and fragrant mixture of spices and aromatics. The pork is then removed from the gravy and crisp-fried in its own fat, then returned to the gravy and served over rice. The combination of slow cooking and frying – sort of a reverse braise – makes the pork belly seem impossibly decadent. The exterior has the crunch of breakfast bacon while the interior remains moist and fall-apart tender. It pairs wonderfully with the rich, aromatic gravy.
Pork belly, unfortunately, is quite variable in quality and fat content. While there is a time and place for the high-fat, skin-on cuts typically found in Asian markets, this recipe demands the leanest boneless belly you can find, skin removed. There will still be plenty of intramuscular fat to keep things tender, but a thick fat cap simply won’t render properly. I am able to procure a 3-4 lb lean pork belly frozen from my local specialty butcher for about five or six dollars a pound. If you can’t find good quality pork belly, a well-trimmed pork shoulder or pork blade roast is an acceptable substitute.
When I make this at home I prefer to cook the pork belly sous vide to optimize both texture and flavor. It requires a little bit more advance planning but noticeably improves an already decadent recipe. The tightly controlled cooking temperature keeps the pork belly from getting too mushy during the long cook, and it allows the flavor to penetrate the meat completely. I’ve provided instructions for both conventional and sous vide methods in the recipe below. If you want some additional pointers on sous vide cooking I’ve provided a brief primer here.
For the curry powder:
- 1/4 cup whole coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp whole fennel seeds
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 2 whole cloves
- 2 cardamom pods, seeds only
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
For the pork:
- 4 lbs lean pork belly (boneless) (or boneless pork shoulder, well-trimmed)
- 6 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- 20 fresh curry leaves
- 3 red onions (finely chopped)
- 4 tsp minced garlic
- 1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
- 2-3 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 tbsp coconut vinegar (or white vinegar)
- 2 tbsp tamarind concentrate
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 8 cardamom pods (slightly bruised)
- 2 cups thick coconut milk (sometimes called cocount cream. See note.)
- 8-10 cups cooked basmati rice (or see note)
Prepare the curry powder
- Toast coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds over medium-low heat in a dry pan until lightly browned and fragrant. For best results, cook each spice individually.
- Combine toasted spices with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom seeds in a spice grinder (or coffee grinder) and blend to form a coarse powder. Stir in the cayenne pepper and set aside.
Prepare the pork and spices
- Cut the pork into large cubes, about 2 inches by 2 inches
- Heat oil in a large dutch oven or wok over medium heat. Fry curry leaves until they start to brown, then add onion and saute for 3-5 minutes until onion is tender and starts to brown. Add garlic and stir for one minute more, then add ginger, 6 tablespoons of the curry powder, cayenne, salt and vinegar, and the pork to the pan. Continue to fry, stirring frequently, until the pork is entirely coated in the spice mixture and the exterior is lightly browned.
- If cooking sous vide, remove from the heat add the tamarind concentrate and stir to coat. Let cool for 10-15 minutes, then transfer to two large plastic bags for sous vide (see note). Add cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods, divided evenly between bags, before sealing. Set the water bath to 185 C and cook for 12 hours or up to 24 hours. When finished, remove pork from bag and reserve liquid from sous vide bag for the gravy.
- If cooking via traditional method, add the tamarind concentrate, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and 3 1/2 cups of water to the dutch oven. Heat through, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 1/2 - 2 hours until the pork is tender and comes apart easily. Remove pork and reserve gravy in a separate container.
- Wipe out dutch oven and bring to medium-high heat. Return pork to the dutch oven and fry in its own fat, about 2-3 minutes per side until the exterior is brown. Work in batches if necessary. If needed, add small amounts of cooking oil to facilitate the frying.
- When the pork is nicely browned, return it all to the dutch oven along with the reserved gravy. Stir in coconut milk and simmer, uncovered, for about 5-15 minutes until gravy reaches desired thickness. Serve with rice.
In Sri Lanka this rice would likely be served with samba, a short-grain rice also used in South Indian biryanis. Basmati rice is much easier to find in the United States, and is an acceptable substitute. Although much different in size and shape, they both maintain separate grains when fully cooked. American or Japanese-style short grain rices have their place, but they are too sticky and mushy for this dish.
This recipe calls for “thick coconut milk”, which is often sold in America as “coconut cream”. My local Asian market sells Savoy brand. Unfortunately, in America “coconut cream” can also refer to a sugary coconut mixer used for making pina coladas, such as Coco Real brand. If you use that this recipe will be a disaster.
If you absolutely can’t find coconut cream you can use standard canned coconut milk instead. The gravy will be thinner but it will still be plenty tasty.