Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ghee whiz

Often I pull off the kitchen shelf a book of curries and more called
Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal, more for inspiration than for directions. I almost never have all of the goods to bring a Kerala dish into being, and so I fake it. Things I most often do without: curry leaves (nothing to do with the spice mix we call curry), ghee (essentially clarified butter) and coconut milk. There really is no substitute for the last, so my dish is less an improvisation than it is a wild departure.

For a Kaimal recipe I cooked last week, I needed three essential things: shrimp, curry leaves and coconut oil. The shrimp get a quick saute in the oil and then a toss with the leaves and a generous portion of salt and pepper. I like the pepper mixes of Mecca, on Brookside, and for the salt I used a pink Himalayan that Kelly bought me at Judy Allen's shop, also on Brookside, in the same block as Biga.

The salt was a birthday present. Allen stocks a salt bar with about a dozen kinds. The flavor differences are subtle. Most of the salts are gathered from the sea, the Himalayan from a salt deposit left over from an inland sea long since vanished.

But ... the oil.

Coconut oil - at least Laxmi's coconut oil - solidifies in cool air, turning a waxy white. I heated the bottle in a pan to bring it back to liquid.

"Do you have coconut oil?" I asked my man there.

"Yes. For cooking?"

What else?

He led me down a row of oddities I'd until now skipped over. It led with jars and jugs of yellow, fatty ghee, the foundation of any delicious Indian gravy. In jars, it looked pale and a bit clinical. Lots of oddball spices, jarred fruits, syrups and pastes of brilliant colors and mysterious uses. About halfway down, the oils began: avocado, mustard, peanut, sesame and so on. Then, with no warning, 'Hair Oil," popping off the shelf like a stepchild, an odd sort.

"Coconut oil," he said, grabbing a bottle. "See ... For cooking."

Indeed, "Ideal for Cooking," claimed the label. As if to suggest it would be less ideal but still suitable for some other use. I looked back at the hair oils, studied the labels, attempting to glean some measure of separation.

I sauteed the shrimp that night in about 3 tablespoons of the stuff. It gave the curry leaves a deeper sheen of green.

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