When I recently asked my husband, Marc, about his first food memory, he thought for a second then said, "Eating off a banana leaf at a wedding in Guyana."
Suddenly, I saw him as a boy with large, dark eyes, a mass of wild hair nearly overtaking his face, narrow hands holding an enormous green leaf. I imagined him wearing a look of concentration while his fingers gripped the edges of a vegetal plate weighed down by spoonfuls of curry, pieces of heat-freckled roti resting on top.
The ruckus of happiness, music, and laughter would have nearly swallowed him in this moment. Anyone who has spent any time at a party thrown by a bunch of West Indians knows that these affairs are loud and welcoming, full of joy.
These days, curry is still Marc’s favorite thing to eat, and I know he is happy that I'm sharing this dish. According to him, life is vastly improved when curry is part of it.
I don't disagree. I grew up with my Cantonese mother's curry, a whole chicken hacked to pieces and cooked with starchy potatoes, onions, madras powder and coconut cream, all of it swimming in sauce and drippings. It was rich and full of deep flavor. Even as a kid, I couldn't stop eating it.
While every West Indian cook probably has his or her own version of curry, each with its unique quirks, this is the one I learned to make from Marc’s younger brother, Johnny. I’ve made some minor adjustments, but this is essentially his, even though his one caveat the day he walked me through this was that he never makes it exactly the same way twice.
For me, food is like invisible netting. It has the ability to keep me held together when all the loose parts and pieces that are memories and experiences, moments nearly forgotten, might otherwise go tumbling onto the ground.
So each time I make this curry for Marc, I hope it takes him back to Guyana, to that time when he was a very small boy eating off a banana leaf, this dish holding him intact as the person he once was, now is and will one day become.
Johnny's Guyanese Beef Curry
A tip! Whenever we cook curry in our house, we make sure all the doors to the other rooms, especially the laundry room, are first shut tightly. The scent of curry can permeate everything! Though delicious, it's not always what you want to smell (or smell like), especially when you're putting on a just-laundered shirt.
With rice or roti, serves 6 hungry people
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 pounds beef chuck cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 3/4 pounds waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/4-inch chunks
3 onions, cut in half then thickly sliced
2-3 dried red peppers, such as chile de arboles
10 fresh thyme sprigs
2 1/2 cups beef broth or water, or a combination, plus more as needed
Salt and pepper
Make the curry paste:
In a small bowl, combine curry powder, tumeric, cumin and jerk seasoning paste. Add enough water to form a thick paste. Set aside.
Make the stew:
Place a dutch oven or other large pan (with a lid) over medium-high heat. When pan is heated, add two tablespoons of coconut oil. Add curry paste and minced garlic. Stir quickly, allowing the paste to cook for a minute or two until highly fragrant.
Add beef to pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn meat, allowing curry paste to sear onto all sides of the pieces and meat starts to brown. Some of the paste may start sticking to the bottom of the pot. Just scrape it up. Add dried chilis and onions, stirring. Some liquid should come out of mixture, but if it appears too dry, add a bit of water or broth to loosen the mixture. Cover and turn heat down. Cook on low for 25 minutes.
Uncover pot and fish out the dried chilis and discard. Add thyme sprigs. Taste for salt, adding to your liking. Add the 2 1/2 cups of broth or water. Cover and simmer on low for an additional 35 to 45 minutes.
Add potatoes and adjust liquid as needed. If it seems too dry or you want more sauce/gravy, add more broth or water at this time. Cover and cook an additional 25 minutes, until potatoes are soft.
Taste again for salt, adjusting as needed. Remove thyme sprigs and discard. Serve over rice, with roti on the side, or wrapped inside a roti.