Discovering the Durban curry

Written by Anoothi Vishal | Anoothi Vishal | Updated: Nov 25 2012, 06:48am hrs
We all know of UKs chicken tikka masala. But here is another, equally popular NRI curry whose popularity cuts across racial lines and whose familiar yet totally different flavours may rev up your South African experience

If how Italian food conquered the world with simple pizzas and pastas, or how entire countries were turned into fast-food nations by burger-selling corporations are fascinating food stories. An account no less compelling is the curry chronicles. Today the curry is enjoying renewed popularity globally. But long before Indian cuisine got trendy, the curry had already taken over large parts of the world. We know of the chicken tikka masala, often touted as UKs national dish, and the myths associated with its origins. But a lesser known curry with an equally widespread appeal cutting across racial and national boundaries is the Durban curry.

I was in South Africa recently in the bustling eastern port town of Durban, not your usual touristy stopover, but special to Indians because of its Gandhi connection as well as the fact that this city has the maximum number of people of Indian origin anywhere in the world outside India. One of my most flavourful discoveries there was, well, the Durban curry dubbed South Africas national dish, which defines its popularity. Thandi is one of the prettiest Durban restaurants at the Fairmont Zimbali Lodge in a scenic gated community off the main town. And it is well-known for its weekly curry buffets. Chefs Yugewdran Ramsay and Seelan Naidoo of Indian origin have introduced some of their family recipes on the menu and it is a learning experience for me to try and decipher how the Durban curry in all its avatars is different from what we have in India. You can taste the flavours of both Africa and India in a single bowl.The generic Durban curry is generally hotter thana most of its Indian counterparts (more red chillies), has more tomatoes (souring agent of choice rather than yoghurt) and has spice notes of cinnamon, cumin, fennel, ginger and garlic among other things. But variations of the recipe abound and vary from restaurant to restaurant, from family to family and one cook to the other. This is primarily because different spice combinations in different proportions are used. In fact, at Durbans Victoria street market, I see mounds of spices (both African and Indian, retailed by Indian-origin traders) and various pre-made curry mixes selling under evocative names, including chicken licken and mother-in-laws tonguewhich, I assume is a sharper spice mix! At the Fairmont restaurant, the various curry pots that I try include the chefs versions of the butter chicken, a lamb curry and a vegetarian one with potaoes and peas. All of these are served with rice, sambal (small side dishes of chopped peanuts, grated coconut,various fruit chutneys, and sliced bananas) and pappadums that are very popular in this part of the world. The curries themselves are all familiar yet unfamiliar. Butter chicken, for instance, a personal recipe of the chef, uses butter milk (along with zeera, cinnamon and turmeric) instead of cream and tomatoes. The lamb curry is the signature dish and people come from far-away places for it. It is decidedly different from the roganjosh we havemuch more aromatic with cinnamon and curry leaves, for one. The curry came to South Africa more than 150 years ago as the food cooked by indentured labourers on sugarcane farms. Thus, it is more rustic than the Mughal-influenced restaurantised stuff that you find in India, where spices are often toned down. Along the way, it has evolved into a distinct cuisine.

The Bunny Chow,a popular street snack is an example of this evolution. It is essentially curry filled into scooped out quarter, half or full loafs of bread. While sugar beans were used initially in the primarily vegetarian curries that sold cheaply at the docks, today, you have mutton and chicken variants.There are interesting stories as to the origins of this snack: Bunny may have come from the word Baniaa slang for the trading community that is settled in large numbers here. Chowthe Chinese word for food apparently got interwoven, as Chinese, Indians, the native Africans and Whites all took to this dish. I discover other Indian-origin dishes as well that have taken on a completely different form. Samoosas, as they are called, are hugely popular, filled with mince meats, coconut and vegetables (but not so much potatoes). At the Zimbali restaurants, they served a version with crab meat and corn in a sweet chilli sauce (somewhat like our own saunth) stuffed inside delicate filo shells(different from our robust maida ones). So all in all, in South Africa, you will not be as away from home!

The writer is a food critic