WHAT DID you get when an irascible but talented Chinese cook employed by an American family in a pre-World War II Philippines outpost prepared "curry"? In the case of Ah Yoo, our family's cook in Mindanao many years ago, you got to eat a curious and absolutely eccentric mingling of Asia, India and the West. It was a feast fit for the prince of your favorite fairy tale, and at the same time a mongrel concoction that owed nearly everything to Ah Yoo's imagination and e'lan, and very little to ethnic authenticity.
Which is, perhaps, the nature of the beast, for there is no more a hybrid dish than curry. According to Julie Sahni, the author of "Classic Indian Cooking" and our favorite authority when it comes to Indian food, "curry" is the Englishman's pronunciation of kari. Kari originally referred only to the aromatic leaves of the kari plant, used in the cooking of southern India, or to an Indian technique of stir-frying vegetables in a mixture of ground spices.
In neither case was the result the curried dish we think of today. For the modern version we can thank that inveterate dunker into hot sauces, the Englishman. (The British medical literature occasionally refers to a condition dubbed "curry kidney.") The early British merchants who sought their fortunes in India returned home with tins of kari podi or curry powder, of indeterminate mixture, and proceeded to dust their stews and casseroles with the hot golden dust. Thus "curries," as we know them, were born.
But there's more to the story. The English-speaking Indian middle class found the idea of these stews and casseroles to their liking. In fact, so much so that in time, a common, everyday dish called salan ("spicy gravy") lost its centuries-old name and became known as kari or "curry."
The Indians may have adopted the name, but not the substance. "Mind you, the Indian kari bears no resemblance whatsoever to the English curry," warns Julie Sahni. A certain Mrs. Bishop, writing about the Indian cuisine in an English periodicial in 1883, summed it up rather well. In India, she observed, "Curry is at each meal, but it is not made with curry powder." Indian curries are made with any number of spice mixtures, usually prepared fresh for each dish; they almost always contain cardamom, usually a stranger to the prepared curry powders, and they rarely contain fenugreek or turmeric, the standbys in the prepared powders.
As curries moved eastward -- and into Ah Yoo's native China -- new spices were substituted for the Indian ones. "Curries" were becoming more and more polygot. And so they've remained.
So where does this leave us? Just, apparently, where Ah Yoo put us -- free to innovate as he did. His curry was a thoroughly lovable mongrel, a delightful, easy-to-prepare party dish, a crowd-stopper at large buffets, and just right for the family feast as well. We loved it as children, and we're still serving it to our own children. Not that Ah Yoo gave us the recipe out of the goodness of his heart. He didn't. His recipes were closely guarded secrets, and our mother had to watch him, surreptitiously, as Ah Yoo ruled that kitchen.
Among the virtues of Ah Yoo's curry is that it allows for virtually 100 percent pre-preparation, which frees the cook for conversation and other civilized acts immediately before and during dinner. It also involves lots of food mixing and sampling among the guests, which is a natural promoter of ease and good fellowship.
The dish is built around a curried chicken stew served over rice, and heaped with a number of toppings, each of which adds a certain texture or flavor. Each diner mixes the curry and piles on the toppings in whatever proportions are appealing. For a sit-down dinner, the dishes of toppings are best arranged on a lazy susan. If it's to be a larger-than-family buffet, you may want to prepare (and clearly label) two versions of the curry, hot and mild. Tastes and capacities for its hotness can vary enormously, we've found.
With all its vegetable toppings, Ah Yoo's chicken curry is a well-balanced meal in itself. In recent years, however, we've added a cucumber and yogurt salad, passing it around after the guests begin eating. It's our version of the Indian raita, a satisfying counterpoint to the hot and lively curry sauce. For dessert, we usually turn to a tart fruit sherbet -- lemon and lime are good choices -- from a quality commercial maker, which is a major compromise, actually, with Ah Yoo's customary finish. He invariably served up the same dream of a dessert after the curry: fresh coconut ice cream. But dream it must remain. In the first place, Ah Yoo insisted upon using only coconuts that were "run-up-the-tree-and-get-one" fresh -- not easy in Washington. But more to the point, our mother never managed to get the recipe. (Score one for Ah Yoo.)
So, Ah Yoo, wherever you are, here's your "curry," as best we can recall. We like to imagine that you'd be pleased to have us pass it on--but somehow we doubt it.
AH YOO'S CURRY (4 to 6 servings) 2 whole chicken breasts, or a comparable amount of chicken thighs 3 tablespoons peanut oil 5 or 6 large cloves garlic, crushed 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped 3 dried Chinese hot red peppers, seeded and finely chopped 1/2 cup thinly sliced onion 1 cup chicken broth 1 teaspoon turmeric 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
Remove bones and skin from chicken and cut meat into 2-inch pieces. Heat the oil in a deep, heavy saucepan. Add the crushed garlic and ginger, stirring vigorously as you do. When these begin to turn golden (a matter of seconds), add the chopped red peppers and continue stirring until the more volatile scent of the peppers is released. (A matter of seconds again.) Lower the heat and add the onions. When the onions have turned yellow and limp, add the chicken, the broth, the turmeric and the salt. Continue to cook for about half an hour on very low heat. This makes a thin, brothy curry sauce. If you like it thicker, just before serving add the cornstarch mixed with an equal amount of water and stir gently for about a minute more. (We like the thinner version.) Place on the serving table in its own pre-heated bowl, along with a heaping bowl of hot rice. (For this dish, we prefer the short-grain variety.)
Note that three of the dried hot peppers, particularly if you remove the seeds, will make a relatively mild sauce. Relatively. To satisfy both the tender-tongues and the tough-tongues in the crowd, you can use only two peppers in the recipe proper. Then, in a side dish, stir-fry another two or three peppers in a little hot peanut oil. When the chicken curry is ready to serve, divide into two portions. Serve one as is, and add the additional hot peppers to the other. This seems to keep everybody happy.
Guests serve themselves. The idea is to build a mini-mountain of rice topped with curry in the center of the plate, and then proceed to creatively heap on the toppings, which have been placed in smaller bowls down-table from the hot dishes. The finished product resembles nothing so much as a three-dimensional, edible Jackson Pollack painting. Here are some suggested toppings. Let your imagination (and what's in your refrigerator) suggest others.
* 4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
* 2 cucumbers, seeded and chopped
* 2 or 3 green peppers, chopped
* 1 pound bacon, cooked until crisp, cooled and crumbled
* 1/2 pound cooked ham, cut into very thin, 1-inch slices
* 1 large sweet onion, chopped, or 6 scallions (both white and green parts), chopped
* 3/4 cup unsalted peanuts
* 1 cup grated coconut, not sweetened. You can usually find unsweetened coconut in the frozen food department. But best of all is the fresh coconut. Place husked but unopened coconut in a pre-heated 325-degree oven for no more than 15 minutes. Remove, crack open, and grate. (The smell of roasting coconut was the first-stage delight of Ah Yoo's curry. He used to serve ample bowls of it, one bowl simply grated, the other grated and roasted.)
* Chutney. When we have time, we make our own. (Julie Sahni has some lovely recipes.) Otherwise, we settle for a deli-shelf version of Major Grey's. The good Major may not be authentically Indian, but then neither is Ah Yoo's curry.
CUCUMBER SALAD 4 cucumbers, peeled (if waxed) and sliced very thin 1 cup yogurt 1/4 cup onion, also sliced very thin 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill 1 teaspoon mint (optional)
You can just throw it all together, but if you have the time, you can give the cucumbers a lovely smooth taste by "wilting" them. Layer the cucumbers and the onion with salt--a good handful or more--and set aside for an hour. Put into a strainer and rinse thoroughly with plenty of cold running water. Drain thoroughly, pressing to get the last drops of water out. Now add the yogurt, dill and mint. Mix thoroughly and chill.
Ah Yoo's curry can also live on when the guests are gone, for the whole performance can be repeated (with almost equal e'clat if you add a new topping or two) later in the week, using the leftovers. As for the leftovers, that's the last great boon of this dish, one Ah Yoo would probably have scorned (he planned with such finesse that no such thing as a "leftover" existed), but one that pleases us, as firm advocates of the make-a-meal-from-a-meal system of cooking. For example, surplus condiments can be mixed-and-matched for open-faced sandwiches, or they can be used to experiment with some new approaches to omelettes. (How about bacon crumbles, green pepper and just a touch of the chutney?) Or, by attentuating the hotness of the red peppers with more chicken broth, you can make a lovely soup from the leftover chicken, using leftover rice and a sprinkle of the bacon. Ah Yoo's curry, whether he would have admitted it or not, yields fine refrigerator-stuffers, those hints of good things to come.