Originally posted in 2010 on this blog with my mom’s curry chick peas channa recipe.
Curry Magic: What the Smell of Curry Means to Me
Immigrant Food Tales by A First Generation American Guyanese Daughter
Picture this, Sacred Bombshell,
Lunchtime. New York City school cafeteria. Some time in the 1980s. Everyone opens their lunchboxes to reveal varied sandwiches: peanut better, jelly, tuna, salami, and the like. I knew from my lunch bag’s smell exactly what I had. Something and curry. It didn’t matter what. It all smelled the same. Rich. Yummy. Delicious. Or that’s how it smelled to me. To the other kids it smelled gross. Ill. Yucky. And although I disagreed on the inside I pretended to agree on the outside. I rejected the curry and I rejected myself.
Guyanese cooking is a blend of foods reflecting our combined African, Southeast Asian Indian, British and Amerindian heritage. Bun and cheese with tea for breakfast. Saltfish with bake, a sweet cake-like bread for brunch. Bora, a majestic cousin to the lowly string bean. Pepperpot, a casreep (cassava extract) and meat stew.
I told my mother that she had too much on her plate and started to make my own lunches that looked like what the other kids ate. Peanut Butter and Grape Jam sandwiches. Good, basic, non-smelly, American sandwiches. Then I devoured my curry chicken and roti when I came home. It was hard enough fitting in when my mother and aunts did things like send me to school on picture day wearing Aunt Silvy’s tiara so that I wouldn’t get teased.
My Aunt Silvy, mom’s big sister, was well known for three things- her great cooking, fashion sense and her big mouth. I have definitely inherited the big mouth but I am still working on cracking her cooking codes. My family is Guyanese so everyone cooks with curry but only my Aunt Silvy had the recipes that would literally have the steaming chicken melting in your mouth. When I walked into her building on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn I smelled the curry cooking way before I made it to the third floor. The smell held me like a hug. I knew that Aunt Silvy had spent hours creating her recipe concoction with the pungent scent that smelled like wildflowers to me.
When I went away to college, eating the bland regulation food made me long for the tastes and smells of home. Thankfully care packages came often and when they were over-nighted with a frozen curry dish I still knew the smell before tearing the box open. Being away for the first time, we students were all different together and proudly shared pieces of home. To my roomie that meant her Philly’s team banners; to me it meant curry chicken.
Lately I have been practicing my own curry recipe formulas. No complete successes yet but with the addition of cumin and turmeric I am getting close. My beloved aunt who was my second mother passed away before I could acquire her recipe secrets. Many Americans have told me that they hate the smell of curry. If that’s the case we can’t “gree” – Guyanese patois for getting along. As an adult I can proclaim what I was too embarrassed to assert as a child. To me, curry smells exactly like love.
Featured photo by Thomas Steiner – photo taken in Istanbul, Turkey with Canon EOS 350D, CC BY-SA 3.0.