Growing up, there was always a copy of Diet for a Small Planet kicking around that I used to often look through. I have a sneaky feeling nearly all vegetarian families in the 70’s-80’s owned at least one copy and when I left home it was one of the first books I bought, most probably the very first cookbook I owned. If you are not familiar with this book, I guess it could best be described as a vegetarian bible of sorts, filled with facts about mass meat production and it’s environmental impact, simple Indian vegetarian recipes and photos of people eating and working the land using cow-drawn machinery. Although we didn’t actually eat a whole lot of Indian food growing up (other than my mums famous samosa) I used to often look through the book, dreaming about running away and living off the land with the Hari Krishnas and feasting on their gorgeous food. I never did quite get there, and I don’t know if it really counts but the most memorable New Years I’ve ever experienced was dancing around with the orange robed Hari Krishnas when I lived in Byron Bay, many moons ago. I was by myself (as Si was working), but joined many others as we helped carry the traditional float around the streets of Byron, before parking up in front of the beach and dancing around like the mad hippies we were. I think I may have even been wearing my full length bright orange skirt that I brought home from India the year before. So no doubt I blended right in.
Actually come to think of it, it was at the local Thursday night Hari Krishna dinner, that all backpackers attended, where Si and I first met. He had just arrived in Bryon Bay after travelling by road all the way from Perth, Western Australia (where we now live) and a mutual friend introduced us over our bowlfuls of dhal and rice. But I digress.
My cooking has long been heavily influenced by the spices and flavours of India and I actually couldn’t imagine life without spice. What would a curry be without the heady aroma of cumin and coriander, or an apple crumble without the sweet spicy hit of cinnamon. Eating tomato on toast without a generous grinding of black pepper is unheard of in our house and even the kids ask for it, and have done since day one. If you were to look into my pantry right now you would find an overflowing container of spices, some whole, others pre-ground. A few shelves down, there are small glass jars filled with all the spices I use on a regular basis. My whole cumin seeds which I toast and grind fresh, whole and ground coriander, turmeric, fennel, ground cinnamon and ginger…
But it’s not just Indian cuisine that uses spices, throughout the world spices are an essential ingredients which gives life to food and defines a nations cuisine. From the cinnamon and star anise found in Vietnam’s Pho, the allspice and black pepper found in Jamaica’s jerk chicken or the sumac and thyme which is combined with sesame seeds to form Za’atar, and used throughout the Middle East. Even many cuisines which we don’t tend to think of as ones which use a lot of spice such as traditional English or French cookery still all do, albeit in small amounts. Apple pie just wouldn’t be the same without a little touch of sweet cinnamon, and a custard tart without nutmeg, no way.
Despite it’s somewhat long list of ingredients, this curry is super quick and easy to prepare, uses fresh ingredients and is packed full of flavour. I like to keep it on the dryer side of things with the sauce just clinging to the potato, but should you prefer a curry with more sauce I’ve given tips for how to achieve this below. I can happily eat a bowlful of this straight-up, but it’s also lovely served on top of basmati rice or wrapped up in a naan or flat-bread.
Because this is such a simple dish you really do want to make sure the potatoes you use are beautiful creamy and full of flavour. By-pass the flavourless pre-washed baby spuds and if you can’t get your hands on small potatoes, just chop larger ones up into bite-sized pieces once you’ve boiled them. Don’t be tempted to skimp on the cooking of the onion as this is what gives this curry it’s beautiful depth of flavour. I often just eat this straight up, but it’s also lovely served with basmati rice or wrapped up in naan or flat-bread. This is a dry-style curry where the sauce just coats the potato which I like, however if you prefer to have more sauce, simply half the amount of potato used or double up on the sauce ingredients.
Serves 4-6 with rice or more as part of a larger meal
1kg small potatoes, scrubbed
2 large tomatoes, skinned* and roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon finely grated ginger
2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons mustard seeds (yellow or brown, it doesn’t really matter)
1/2 large onion, peeled and finely diced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
2 good pinches of unrefined raw sugar
a pinch dried chilli flakes, optional
the juice of 1/2 lemon
fresh coriander and dill leaves, roughly torn, to serve
Place potatoes into a medium saucepan, cover with plenty of cold water, add a good pinch of sea salt and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes or until potatoes are just tender. This time may vary depending on how big or small your potatoes are, so just use your judgement on this one. Drain and cut in half, or cut into bite sized pieces if larger potatoes are used.
Blend tomatoes, garlic and ginger using a blender or mini food processor until smooth.
Heat ghee or oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add cumin and mustard seeds and cook briefly until they start to pop. Add onion and reduce heat slightly. Cook, stirring often for 8-10 minutes or until onion is very soft and a lovely golden brown. Add dried spices, salt, sugar and chilli flakes (if using), stir well and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant. Pour in the blended tomato mixture, stir well and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring often until reduced and thick. Add potatoes and stir well to coat them in the sauce, cook for 5-7 minutes to allow the flavour of the sauce to be absorbed into the potato. The sauce should be thick enough to cling to the potato. Stir in lemon juice and serve scattered with fresh coriander and dill leaves. Can be eaten as is, with rice or as part of a larger meal.
* To skin the tomatoes, remove the core and score a cross on the round end. Place into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for a minute or until their skins start to peel off. Drain and slip the skins off before roughly chopping.