Curry in a Hurry? Not
Pounding the spice paste with pestle and mortar
Good cooking, Elizabeth David famously said, is trouble. As with all things created by the human hand, cooking involves a fair bit of labour. And if the cooking is good, the sweat in question was no doubt a labour of love. In every cook's heart of hearts, I think, resides a sincere desire to please. Mere sustenance aside, the food one has taken the trouble to cook should, hopefully, make people happy.
The pestle and mortar lie at the heart of every Southeast Asian kitchen. It also perhaps best symbolises the painstaking effort that goes into the making of a meal. I inherited my granite-hewn monolith from my grandmother, who one day graciously (if, understandably, a mite reluctantly) decided the time was right for her to pass it on. It had served her well for many decades, and looks set to do the same in its current home. I love its handsome, worn patina, how its marble-like smoothness speaks of years of craggy fragments of chillies, shallots, galangal and what-not being rendered to a homogenous rempah.
Tonight's duck curry was based on a recipe from David Thompson's exacting Thai Food cookbook. Served with long-grain jasmine rice, steamed salted duck eggs, and deep-fried dried anchovies, once the spice paste was made, everything else was a snap to assemble.
There's nothing to stop me from whizzing together, pronto, the myriad ingredients required in a blender or processor. But I like using the pestle and mortar. I like the progression, the methodical addition of individual ingredients - from the hard and dry to the soft and moist - each reduced to a pulp and generously giving up its aromatic essences before the next is added. I like the rhythmic up-and-down motion of pounding, an exercise that can take a good half-hour to produce a paste of a proper consistency, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Best of all, I like how the test, as always, is in the taste. A paste pulverised by machine cannot produce a curry, say, of the same effect as a paste pounded by hand.