Some of the most delicious curries I’ve ever tasted have been from the very places people may not be inclined to look. Take heed bold travellers of the Orient who unwisely think the hotel is a better place to eat than the street. While the roadside vendor arrives, prepares and sells out of food, the hotel will likely be re-heating a grand buffet of curries to cool them yet again in rattling fridges, where trembling drips of condensation fall back into this chemically weaponised puddle of brown.
In a shack in the jungle I once ate a curry, my immersion into its vibrant deep spicy deliciousness only interrupted by the chef being arrested and led from his roadside kitchen. I was forced to settle the extortionate bill with the police who informed me that ‘Cooky’ was a notorious poacher and I had just eaten the equivalent of a whole white spotted chevrotain – an endangered pygmy tea cup sized deer.
In the mist of the Naga hills I once ate a slick, maroon coloured curry with the once headhunters of the Angami tribe. In it bobbed hacked chunks of hairy boar. It was not unpleasant and on finishing we got deep into cups of palm wine. Under the stars we listened to the haunting harmonics and clicks of Angami songs when I was suddenly asked to join in. To my surprise, all the elderly men stood up, proudly decorated in their hornbill feathers and bristling with spears, to sing “It’s a Long way to Tipperary.” Turns out they had fought alongside the British in the Second World War. I infinitely prefer such occasions to a vindaloo, five pints and staggering home shouting “Thank you for the music.”
While fishing the lower Mahi-Dehing river in the Himalayas I ate some of the best curry I’ve ever tasted, foraged from jungle greens by our guides. Every night the guts and internal organs of the ten live chickens were cleaned and chopped with ginger, garlic and spices, then rolled in a banana leaf and shoved inside a thick section of bamboo. The ends were blocked with mud, the package tossed on the fire and its cooking time signalled by the whip-crack of splitting wood. Once unwrapped, those steaming guts were one of the finest things I can ever remember tasting.
Unwisely, I once instructed the waiter at West London’s legendary Khan’s Restaurant to ramp up my jalfrezi. Tears poured down the backs of my legs the following morning, having taken on such torturous heat the night before that on the first mouthful I got tinnitus, started hallucinating and suffered a panic attack.
But, most beloved of all, was my father’s prawn curry from his days as an ambassador in Laos during the Sixties. It was a gentle saffron and cardamom laced curry, mellowed with vermouth and cream. It was so deliciously sweet and creamy that I couldn’t help but utter the words: Keep Korma and Curry On!
Valentine Warner is our monthly columnist and an acclaimed chef, TV presenter and author. Find out more at valentinewarner.com