Looking for a good meal for chilly evenings following long days on the
water? Something that's quick to throw together, with a bold flavor and warm
after-glow? Then Tamia has a suggestion: Dip into a varied and versatile catalog
of spicy dishes from South Asia, many of which are now available in an
easy-to-transport, easy-to-prepare form. So… What's stopping you? Curry on
May 16, 2017
The New Model Climate is making snow a rare treat in much of Canoe Country, even in winter, but things used to be very different. One August many years ago found Farwell and me on a long, narrow lake in central Québec, struggling to make headway against half a gale of wind. This was bad enough in itself, but the wind was driving a wintry mix of snow and sleet before it, and our travelworn foul-weather gear was proving unequal to the challenge. By day's end we were tired, wet, and cold.
Mugs of sweetened tea helped to thaw our fingers as our supper—canned beef stew—simmered on the stove. The stew wasn't gourmet fare, but it was quick to heat and easy to prepare. I knew it would both warm us and fill us up. That was enough.
Or so we thought. But then one of our companions poked his head under the tarp. He and his wife weren't the "tinned stew" sort. They dined every night on home-prepared, home-dehydrated meals, many of which could have been described, without exaggeration, as haute cuisine. (They'd even brought a couple of splits of champaign along for special occasions.) Our friend looked at the bubbling pot. He sniffed the air, heavy with the cloying and somewhat metallic odor of Dinty Moore's best. His nose wrinkled expressively, but he said nothing at first, and his silence was eloquent. Then he started fishing around in the pockets of his Gore-Tex jacket till he'd found what he was looking for: a 35 mm film canister with a yellow top. "Take this," he said suddenly. "Stir it into that…" Here he paused, searching for the right words. "Er… Stuff. It might make it…" Another thoughtful pause. "Well, you know, edible." His tone suggested doubt and hope in equal measure.
I was too tired to be offended by our friend's less than generous critique of my cuisine. I took the proffered film canister from his hand and opened it. The aroma was as pungent as it was powerful, and my quizzical expression elicited the briefest of descriptions—a single word:
I was impressed, to say the least. The thought of bringing a taste of India into the wilds of Québec struck me as the height of sophistication. (As you've probably guessed, at the time in question my backcountry menu was still stuck at the utility end of the scale.) But strictly speaking, and with the wisdom of hindsight, I now know that our foodie friend's concise description was a little off the mark. The film can contained curry powder (a highly variable blend of spices), not curry (one of many spicy dishes originating in South Asia). Such taxonomic niceties meant little to me back then, however. And our friend was right about one thing: His curry powder certainly did improve the stew. It still wasn't gourmet fare, but it was a lot more palatable than it would have been without the addition of the potent spices. Then and there I made a mental note to add curry powder to my master food list.
But I never considered adding curry—as distinct from curry powder—to my camping menu. Until the last few months, that is. The inspiration came during one of Farwell's post-eye-op convalescent periods. For some years he's been steering his course through life's many obstacles with what he liked to call "sonar," i.e., the echoes from the oaths and imprecations following his frequent collisions with doors, walls, and hard furniture. But now he's relearning the art of navigating by eye, and in furtherance of that end, he'd accompanied me on my weekly food-shopping trip. These excursions are necessarily rather protracted affairs, and it was already late in the morning. The day was wet and chill, and we were both looking forward to lunch, but there were still boxes to tick on my shopping list. So I hurried off in search of basmati rice, leaving Farwell standing next to the display labeled "Asian Foods." He was still there when I returned, intently examining packages of Super Kohinoor "Heat & Eat" curries. (Seeing him reading the minuscule print was something of a novelty. Not so very long ago, he'd been hard pressed to interpret 48-point fonts with his nose only six inches from his computer's display—even with the help of two nested pairs of reading glasses.)
Anyway, Farwell acknowledged my return by shoving the package he'd been examining into the cart. It was quickly followed by three more. He offered no explanation, but I guessed that his sudden enthusiasm for curry was a product of the chill weather and recent exposure to a television dramatisation of one of Christie's "Miss Marple" novels, in which a somewhat doddery old vicar wanders into an Indian restaurant on a chilly night and spends a pleasant evening over a curry while conversing with the restaurant's owner. (Television has never played a big role on our lives, but now that Farwell can once again see what's happening on the screen, he occasionally revisits an old favorite.)
Whatever the reason, the Super Kohinoor curries ended up on our pantry shelves, and one of them did indeed find its way to our table that lunchtime. It was a good choice, too, since…
A CURRY IS JUST THE THING FOR A RAW DAY
Following a suggestion on several Super Kohinoor packages, I'd picked up several rounds of ready-made naan bread at the store, and once we were back home I steamed some basmati rice while warming the naan in the oven. Farwell selected one of the curries—dal tadka (yellow lentil curry), as it happened—and removed the heavy plastic pouch from its cardboard sleeve. The cooking instructions on the package couldn't have been simpler: Immerse in boiling water for a few minutes. The hour was late. We were hungry. So the bag went into the water, and as soon as the rice was done and the dal tadka had been divided between us, we each buttered a half-round of naan bread. Our lunch was ready.
I have to confess that, on first acquaintance, I found the curry rather too hot for my taste—according to a sticker on the package, the dal tadka is assigned a "medium" spice level—but it was certainly flavorful, and the rice tempered the heat somewhat. I soon adjusted my thermostat. The naan bread also went down a treat. All in all, it was a most satisfactory quick meal, and it certainly took the chill off the day.
Of course, when getting such a meal together involves little more than placing a pouch in boiling water, it's not hard to see that…
CURRY HAS A PLACE IN PADDLERS' FOOD BAGS
There are four Super Kohinoor Heat & Eat curries available in my local HyperMart, and we've tried them all. We like the dal tadka best, but mutter paneer has more substance and less heat:
The package copy promises "tender garden peas tossed with Indian cottage cheese cooked in a curry of mild spices," but I found that those tender peas had been reduced to mush in processing, so in the interest of improving the texture and presentation, I added about ¼ cup of frozen peas to the dish. (How did I get them into the sealed bag? Read on. All will be revealed. In any event, the extra peas weren't essential.) And if you're wondering about the cuboid lumps in the photo, they're the cottage cheese. It looks nothing like the cottage cheese you'll find in your HyperMart's dairy case—unless your local HyperMart is in Mumbai—and it doesn't taste anything like it, either, but the chewy cubes have a very pleasant flavor.
A second mildly spicy Super Kohinoor curry is Peshawari dal makhani, described as "whole black lentils and red kidney beans cooked in a creamy sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and other herbs." It's not bad at all, with a texture closer to bisque than stew.
And then there's Mumbai pav bhaji:
The copywriters pulled out all the stops with this one. It's apparently "a Mumbai specialty made of fresh vegetables, potatoes, and aromatic spices." That's all well and good, but first-time buyers should be warned that it's at least as hot as the dal tadka. The good news? It's also every bit as warming on a chilly day.
That's the last of the Super Kohinoor curries on offer in my local HyperMart. If you live in or near a major city, you'll likely have much more to choose from. A word to the wise is probably in order at this point, however. Salt and saturated fat levels in packaged meals can be high, and the Super Kohinoor curries are no exception. The upshot? If salt or fat is a worry, you'll want to pay close attention to the nutrition labeling. Paddlers who eschew meat can breathe a sight of relief, though. All the Super Kohinoor curries that we've tested are "100% Vegetarian."
Now a word about preparation: The boil-in-the-bag approach is about as simple as any type of cooking can be, but I'm not a fan. For one thing, I don't like heating food in plastic. (Don't get me wrong. There's no reason to think that the plastic used in the Super Kohinoor curries poses any sort of health risk. I just don't like cooking in plastic. Any plastic. I've even retired my one remaining Teflon-coated pan.) It's also surprisingly difficult to apportion servings equitably when you're pouring from a plastic bag. If two people share a curry—the package claims that it serves three, but this is a polite fiction, at least for active paddlers—one of the diners is likely to get the "soup" while the other gets all the solids. So I've learned to ignore the instructions and empty the contents of the pouch into a pot. I then bring the curry to a simmer on the stove and ladle out the portions. It's not as easy as dunking the intact bag in boiling water, I admit, and I end up with a dirty pot, but the small inconvenience is worth it.
The decant-and-heat approach also allows you to add extra ingredients, something you'll probably want to do if you're relying on a curry as the mainstay of a camp meal. Assuming that you split a package with your partner, the calorie count of the curries that I've sampled ranges from only 140 (dal tadka) to 265 (Mumbai pav bhaji). If you've just paddled 15 miles into a headwind, you'll need more than that. At a minimum, I recommend a generous serving of rice and a good-sized wedge of flatbread. Naan is a natural choice. A leavened flatbread from South Asia, naan can hold its own in a pack for at least a week, so it's a good choice for shorter trips when you don't want to go to the trouble of baking bread in camp.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading off to what I like to think of as my "test kitchen." Inspired by Super Kohinoor, I'm cooking up a DIY squash and lentil curry. I'll serve it with rice, homemade yogurt, and naan. And if it doesn't disappoint, I'll probably make it the next time I spend a chill, mizzly day in camp.
Curry isn't to everyone's taste, but if you're looking for a quick, hot meal that warms you two ways, you could do a lot worse than going for a curry. And judging from our experience, the Super Kohinoor line is a good place to start.
Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Then e-mail Tamia.
In case you're wondering: In the Same Boat never accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. We write about the food we buy on our weekly rounds, and about the gear and books we've purchased, rented, or borrowed over the years. That said, on rare occasions we'll write a product analysis of something we don't own and have never used, based solely on the manufacturer's claims, published specifications, or others' experiences. But whenever we do that, we'll tell you.
Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
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