WANDERINGS AND WONDERING OF YOUTH

Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.

But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.

All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.

Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;

Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;

A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;

Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.

About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;

Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);

In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;

And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.

However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.

The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).

Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…

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Ideal Beach Hotel LIME CHICKEN CURRY

 

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Yesterday afternoon I was pouring through my collection of Indian cookery books looking for something different to do with a chicken breast languishing in my fridge. As often happens on these occasions, after ten minutes or so of not finding quite what I was looking for,  I was about to revert to my trusty old Madhur Jaffrey butter chicken when a piece of paper being used as a bookmark caught my attention.  Frayed and food-stained, it turned out to contain a barely legible biro-scrawled recipe for a chicken curry. After further examination, I noted that it contained some unusual culinary bedfellows for an Indian chicken dish – things like  olive oil, ground caraway seed, lime juice, and most particularly, both bay and curry leaves. Then suddenly I remembered a swelteringly hot and sticky afternoon spent in a hotel kitchen in southern India in the autumn of 2003.

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We were guests at the aptly named Ideal Beach Hotel, in Mahabalipuram, on India’s Tamil coast, resting up for a few days before travelling inland to Coimbatore (where my wife Dido was to help in the establishment of a clinical education centre for children with autism).

I think it was on our first evening there, during supper, we got chatting with a very affable American couple at the next table who turned out to share our enthusiasm for the delicious local cuisine. At some point during the meal the four of us were invited by the maître d to visit the kitchen the following lunchtime to watch our food being prepared. Cathy – the lady of the American couple and a veteran of the Ideal Beach Hotel – chose the menu, including the lime chicken curry which turned out to be as delicious as it was unusual.

The rare blend of ingredients and spices was explained by the fact that our young head chef, although a Tamil, had been trained in Bengal and enjoyed fusing the two distinct culinary traditions.

2003 India Lunch with Cathy & Richard
Cathy, Richard, Dido and yours truly enjoying our curry lunch

Fortunately Dido had the presence of mind to record the preparation of the curry and – albeit thirteen years late – I was able to decipher the recipe and apply it to the chicken breast in my fridge.  And, it was absolutely delicious! The caraway, lime, bay and curry leaf are a group marriage made in heaven – a complex and unctuous harmony of savoury, fragrant bitter sweetness that transforms humble white chicken meat into a thing of olfactory delight.

There are two ways to sample this fabulous curry – either follow the recipe below, or better still, go and visit the Ideal Beach Hotel. I can recommend both.

(Chapatis and a hot lime pickle are excellent with this curry also, if using fresh curry leaves, add at the same time as the lime juice.)

 

RECIPE

Ingredients

¼ cup:                             olive or coconut oil
200gm / 8oz:                       diced chicken breast

SPICE MASALA I 

5cm / 2” stick:                                cinnamon
2 – 3:                                           cloves
2 - 3:                                    cardamom pods
1:                                             bay leaf
1:                                onion – finely grated
5cm / 2” piece:    ginger – peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves:          garlic – peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp:                                           water
1:                           large, ripe tomato chopped

SPICE MASALA II

½ tsp:                                        turmeric
1 tsp:                                    chili powder
1½ tsp:                          ground coriander seed
1 tsp:                                     groud cumin
1 tsp:                                    garam masala
1 tsp:                             ground caraway seed
1 tsp:                               whole fennel seed
1 tsp:                                            salt
3:                                        curry leaves
½ ltr / 1 pint:                                  water
To taste:                                         salt
¼ cup:                                      lime juice

METHOD
  1. Blend the ginger, garlic and water into a paste
  2. Heat the oil in a kadai or a heavy skillet on a medium high heat
  3. Brown the diced chicken thoroughly, then remove from kadai and put aside (retaining the juices)
  4. Add masala I to the kadai and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly until well browned
  5. Add onion to kadai and stir-fry until browned
  6. Add the tomato to the kadai and fry for 2 minutes until oil separates from the masala, onion and tomato paste
  7. Add the ginger and garlic puree to the kadai and stir for 1 minute
  8. Return the chicken and its juices to the kadai and stir well
  9. Add masala II and the curry leaves to the kadai and stir well, making certain the chicken is well coated
  10. Add the water, making sure to deglaze (scrape) the bottom of the kadai
  11. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for half hour
  12. Remove cover and cook over a high heat for about 10 minutes, until the sauce begins to thicken
  13. Add more salt (if necessary) and the lime juice, stir well and remove from heat
  14. Remove cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods before serving

    Two Chefs
    Our chef (right) and an assistant

A RAINY DAY IN CHENNAI

In 2003 my wife was invited to India to open an autism clinic in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We flew into Madras where we also spent our first night. Unfortunately, our hotel was terrible (too terrible to go into details on this site) and with the monsoon in full sway, it all added up to a fairly miserable first 24 hours on the Subcontinent. These six pictures – capture something of the general melancholy (if not the aroma) – especially the one of Dido waiting in the hotel dining room for our taxi to arrive to take us to a coastal resort for a three-day holiday.