Curry leaves. I have Nigel Slater’s KitchenDiaries open at the page where he speaks of their scarcity: “unless,” he says, “you happen to live near an Asian market.” I’m excited. Martin and I have a day to ourselves, away from work and near to weekend when we plan to shop and hike and eat. The sky is colourless apart from the odd smudge of charcoal-grey and there is rain in the air. Despite this, I feel lucky. Blessed almost, for living – only a short drive away – from one of the region’s best providers of Asian herbs, vegetables and fruit. Let me introduce you to the Bates brothers’ emporium. A bustling, basket-bumping aisle of ripening fruits, aromatic herbs and dewy fresh greens.
Mr Bates’s stall is one of the larger and more diverse of the many fresh produce stalls which make up Bolton Market’s indoor food hall. Positioned ever so conveniently next to the fish market, you can slip out through one sliding glass door with your parcel of freshly gutted sea bream and in at another for your frond-topped fennel and bouquet of dill.
Mr Bates carries in crates of tomatoes and boxes of mango, plum and papaya. He has thick iron-grey hair and small jittery blue eyes. His neck muscles tense and then relax as he replenishes his stock of deep purple plums. He scans the display for burst fruits and chucks them into the empty box. I sense his hunger for perfection and feel some sympathy for the imagined wife: edgy in her neat-healed mules as she straightens the bathroom towels or balances the books. Mr Bates does not take prisoners. Ever. On one of our visits I saw his arms shoot down to his thighs like a soldier obeying drill orders and his fists clench in readiness for a fight: “The bloody dick-‘ed,” he screeched, “what a bloody dick-‘ed.” Who? I thought as I turned to see an old man slouch from the stall grinning like a pixie. “He comes here, every bloody week, looks up and down my stall and then asks for something I haven’t got! This week it’s flat-leaf parsley,” and again, “the bloody dick-‘ed!!”
Today, I unhook a bushy bunch of dill that hangs next to the parsley. I place a bulb of fennel, a pair of aubergines the colour of dark jam and a bag of earth-dusted Cyprus potatoes into our wire basket. I puzzle over which chillies to buy and Martin, seduced by their wrinkled plumpness and Ethiopian colours, urges me to choose scotch bonnet. I pick out some mint and feel through the rubble of garlic for the fattest bulbs. I lay the garland of curry leaves on top of the basket and Martin carries our purchases to the till. There are two tills both operated by unsmiling women. Perhaps one of them is Mrs Bates. They look like they have had their fill of five-a-day as they dump potatoes and tuck herbs into plastic bags. Our lady of the cash register stares at the proffered twenty pound note as if it’s crawling with lice. She counts out change into Martin’s palm and shouts, “Next!” Neither Martin nor I mind this brusque treatment; we see it as part of the market’s charm. A gritty no-nonsense northern attitude that refuses to accommodate the vacuum-packed pleasantries practised by Sainsbury’s check-out girls. No, you will never hear "would you like help with your packing?" or (thankfully) “have a nice day” at Bolton’s market.
But it is Sainsbury’s we travel to next. As much as I would love to gather all my groceries from the local market traders there are just some items you can’t get. I’d really rather not deal with a full head of lettuce and its grubby roots (I leave these with Mr Bates), but prefer instead the tender leaves tumbling through the air of a cushion-soft pre-packed mix - despite the fact that it stubbornly refuses to be squeezed inside the salad compartment at the bottom of our fridge.
It is later in the day and I return again to The Kitchen Diaries for inspiration. The page is still open at 110 and I scan the list of ingredients for ‘Chicken with mustard seed and coconut milk’. I think it’s a perfectly composed title for Nigel’s recipe as it describes three of the many listed ingredients. However, on production of my version I want to amend this mouth-soothing mixture of words into a headline more fitting for the scalding fieriness of quite the hottest curries I have tasted in an overlong time.
Stinging Hot Curry with Essential Leaves and Scotch Bonnet Chillies
I know, it’s a mouthful but I really don’t care, this dish demands everyone’s attention. And I gave some emphasis in the last paragraph to the fact that I have missed those days. Yes, crazy days indeed where on one of them I stared gasping with admiration while my brother, Ed, just for a laugh, glugged down the contents from a bottle of Tabasco sauce at our local Pizza House. I just had to try it and was hooked ever since. It was that sensation, like having sunburn on the roof of your mouth. Like licking hot coals. It didn’t matter that I adopted the freaky look of a pop-eyed ornamental goldfish opening its mouth for the water to rush in. From then on whatever was hottest on the menu I had to order - from the scariest con carne to the fiercest vindaloo. Bring it on down. My mother stopped buying Daddies Sauce and instead we would shake Tabasco on our chips and drink, it has to be said, gallons upon gallons of icy water. We were table-top anarchists my brother and I; a tea time Bonnie and Clyde with forks at the ready as we murdered our fish with heat.
Of course, I’m going to blow the bonnet chillies’ trumpet here, they were so very hot but I must also salute their laidback partner – the green and pleasant curry leaf. Nigel suggests they are a ‘sound’ but not ‘essential’ ingredient and I can agree - without them, and certainly after the first blast of heat, we would have made do with the calming milky sweetness of coconut. But they were the reason for this morning’s market trip and they decorate my worktop so demurely like a flowerless clipping from an English rose bush. How perfectly strange, then, and how seductive is their scent: a warm nutty spiciness that has wafted its way, not from the garden, but from a far away eastern land where donkeys doze in the sun.
Groundnut oil – 3 tablespoons
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs – cut into bite-sized pieces
Cumin seeds – 1 teaspoon
Coriander seeds – 2 teaspoons
Black mustard seeds – 2 teaspoons
Small, hot, red chillies – 3
Ginger – a walnut-sized thumb
Onions – 3
Garlic – 2 cloves
Ground turmeric – 1 teaspoon
Tomatoes – 400g, chopped (or tin of chopped tomatoes)
Curry leaves – handful
Coconut milk – 400g can
Salt – approx 1 teaspoon
With a pestle and mortar - grind the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds just enough to release some of their heat.
Heat the oil in a large fry pan and toss in the ground spices allowing the mustard seeds to sputter and pop before adding your chopped (and if you must) deseeded chillies.
Peel and grate the ginger, chop the onions and slice the garlic stirring each into the warmed spices.
Add the chicken and turn up the heat a little making sure the onions soften and the meat cooks evenly. This should take around 10 minutes.
The tomatoes can now be added, along with the turmeric, curry leaves, coconut milk and salt.
Cover and simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened.
Serve with your choice of rice dish, poppadams and their accompaniments.
Nigel encourages you to use a full chicken jointed for this dish and I suppose this would be perfectly acceptable for some. However, what is agreeable in a rustic stew may not be as favourable in its Far Eastern counterpart. No, the very idea of curry sauce atop a skin-on chicken portion leaves me feeling a little squeamish, however much I may have browned the chicken pieces before the sauce has been added. You can use chicken breast if you want but I used chicken thighs in my version as I think the darker meat is far more flavoursome than the white. As you probably guessed, I threw in my chopped chillies - seeds and all. As I stirred my curry and tested the mix I knew it would be too much for Martin and so slid in dollops of cooling yogurt to assuage its screaming heat. Even so - this curry, with its insane mix of scorching Caribbean chillies really did sing.