Der Mensch ist, was er isst.
A man is what he eats.
Ludwig Feuerbach, in Jacob Moleschott, Lehre der Nahrungsmittel: Für das Volk, 1850
All this stuff about mango shakes built by eight-year-olds and greasy goat stew served by supercilious bandits may seem a little unusual to the average reader in these decadent days, given child labor laws and hygiene inspections and the like. But then readers of (Searching for) Solid Ground are far from average, despite the fondest hopes of author, publisher, printer, bookseller and everyone else with a financial interest in the matter (if indeed such there turn out to be). Undoubtedly their tastes in, indeed their very need for, food vary enormously.
For those on trains in Mongolia, or Toyotas in the Serengeti, or pinned down by casual gunfire in Lima or Los Angeles, food may not even be quite as available as they might wish. They should probably save this chapter for later, and skip over the eating bits to get on to the nice escapist storyline. Bye.
For those suffering angst at home, ditched by lovers, dumped on by bosses, sandbagged by life, underwhelmed by the available options ... for them, comfort food is indicated chacun à son gout, as the don said, passing the port scrambled eggs or burgers or cereal, what the hell, popcorn for dinner or strawberry jam, whatever makes you feel relaxed and happy. Put a childhood fave on the stereo if you can, settle back and let Annie and Blackie and Cedar and all the rest of the alphabetic gang down to Whitey and Xavier and Young Zahir do the experimenting for you.
Others, however, may want to get into the swing of the thing. They may want a bit of shake-up from the old routine, something a teensy bit different, a little bit of a plunge into the unknown (but not too far). In the spirit of helpfulness and education that characterizes the best popular entertainment, here for your delectation is a tasteful and instructive solution.
SOLID GROUND'S NUMBERLESS CURRY
This subtle but piquant courtier will cater to any fantasy you request. It will caress your palate and waft gently past your mucous membranes to the delicate haze of the brain's pleasure centers, or if you prefer rough trade it will fight your throat and burn your ass in the morning. Revisited, it will always surprise and never disappoint unless, of course, you want it to.
sufficient Vegetable oil
Makes quite a bit. Serve with chapatti, puri, flour tortillas, nan, any other kind of bread-like substance or some other carbohydrate such as rice, or perhaps even noodles; economical Indians go heavy on the carbs and light on the sauce, while affluent hippies tend to reverse the proportions. Mango chutney is good with it, unless you go too heavy on the sweet fruit.
Put the oil into a large pan, preferably cast-iron, and add the spices in a generous quantity while applying gentle heat. Roll the oil around so that the spices dissolve into it without leaving lumps. Add the onion(s) and stir them around (by now the pan's probably getting warm) so that they are covered by the spicy oil, which has been yellowed by the turmeric. Chop the vegetables and fruits and throw them in, being careful not to splash because turmeric stains. If you want to add chicken, brown it first and then stir it in. The pan may be full before you're through but don't worry, a little cooking will make more room. Fill up the cracks with water and shell the peanuts while you wait (unless you bought them shelled, in which case you're on your own for entertainment). Simmer as long as possible until a bit after the veg is all soft is minimal; all day and night would probably be great but who could wait that long; about the length of a movie should be good. Right before serving, stir in a significant dollop of sour cream, which makes the world of difference.
PHILOSOPHY & DETAILS
Making this, or rather, this kind of dish, is an object lesson for control freaks. (For example, most of us in this culture, to some degree; at least, it's a lesson for that side of the personality.) Loosen up. It practically never goes wrong. Good cooks don't worry about the details most of the time and, at least on this occasion, you too can act like a good cook.
The spices really are a matter of taste. Try starting with about a pinch of each and play from there. A good guide as to which to use can be found by looking at the ingredients of any commercial curry powder; it's worth keeping some on hand and throwing in a chunk to cover any you're missing. Turmeric, cumin, ginger, mustard, pepper and salt (if only a tiny bit to help combine the flavors) are pretty much essential; coriander is often good; fenugreek has a cool name but who knows what it tastes like; and feel free to try the 'Italian' spices, such as oregano, or some of the Simon & Garfunkel spices ... or Lea & Perrins' confection ... or any other inspiration. Just remember, a curry does not have to be hot you add that by putting in more of the hot spices, such as red pepper, hot mustard, crushed chillies, Tabasco sauce, and so on. Don't leave them out altogether, though, because the fruit and sour cream, especially, will dampen down the intensity.
Enough onions to sort of cover the pan to start with is about right. Chop everything coarsely, they all mush down when they simmer long enough. For vegetables, you could use most or all of: bell peppers, zucchini (or courgettes if you prefer), carrots, mushrooms, perhaps green beans or broccoli, a tomato or more for the liquid, maybe some garlic, which some people prefer to add after the onions, although others like to toast bits in with the spices.
The fruit is inessential but interesting. The water could be supplemented with wine or possibly some kind of juice. The oil is really a replacement for ghee, the clarified butter that is normally used in the Indian sub-continent. For that matter, the turmeric is at least partly a substitute for saffron; if you want to feel really exotic and extravagant, take out a bank loan and get your hands on a gram or so of that powder, but it's really wasted in this mélange. Might as well blow your nose.
Traditionally, Solid Ground's Numberless Curry is a vegetarian dish. (By appointment to select audiences for decades.) It works fine with chicken, and might work with other meats, but on no account try to use left-over turkey. The only time this recipe has unequivocally failed was in California one year, the week after Thanksgiving; turkey meat is strong stuff and overwhelms everything. Eschew it.
Hold onto the essentials: onions coated with oil in which spices have been melted, simmered with veggies and such and served with bread of a sort.
Be careful. People may start thinking you can cook.