‘A chili,’ said Rebecca, gasping. ‘Oh yes!’ She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported… Photograph: Kate Young/Little Library Cafe
Food in books: the goat curry in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair
Becky Sharp’s first encounter with a chilli in Vanity Fair is a scorching reminder of how badly words can deceive. What would her delicate palate make of Kate Young’s fragrant concoction?
Thu 5 Nov 2015 10.58 GMT
“Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear,” said Mr. Sedley, laughing. Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. “Do you find it as good as everything else from India?” said Mr. Sedley. “Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper. “Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested. “A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
When I was fifteen, I scored a job in one of the best Indian restaurants in Brisbane. I had spent the six months previous smelling of oil and cod (my first job was in a fish and chip shop) and was setting myself up for five years of a uniform perfumed by Indian spices. The latter was infinitely more exciting, and so stimulating in terms of my culinary education. I spent the quieter evenings peering over the shoulders of the chefs, watching as they hooked charcoal dotted naans out of the tandoor, tossed a secret blend of aromatic spices around a pan and flung samosas and pakoras into smoking hot oil.
At the end of every shift I would take a scoop of curry (I worked my way through most of the 50+ dishes in my years there) and settle in with a book at an empty table. It was a great way to spend my teenage years, and ignited a long-held passion for Indian spices. Now that I have a career in food in my sights, I wish more than anything that I could go back and write down everything I saw go into those extraordinary dishes.
I hadn’t read Vanity Fair until last year, when hearing a snippet of the BBC’s 20-part adaptation hooked me immediately. It had been on my reading list (and my bookshelf) for such a long time and I was so pleased to finally discover this sharp satire of English life in the mid-19th century, centred on two women, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. It’s a bleak study of humanity. Thackeray’s characters, though occasionally sympathetic, are generally heavily flawed; anti-heroine Becky Sharp is manipulative, selfish and vain, demonstrating an almost complete lack of morality. And yet, she’s so richly layered that I find her an intriguing and even occasionally – against my better judgment – identifiable character. Especially, for me, in the moment above.
The recipe below is the simplest of curries – a classic fragrant spice mix with some meat, potatoes and stock. Similar to a British stew, in many ways, but unlike anything Becky Sharp would have tasted before. The chefs at Taj Bengal (the restaurant I worked in) used to trick us all the time, hiding super hot chillies in the middle of our curries, and then poking their heads out from the kitchen to observe the moment our delicate palates would discover them. Red-faced, laughing gallantly, I would always struggle, like Becky, to hide the pain felt after taking a huge bite out of a chilli. You think I would have learnt the first time.
Goat Curry: the recipe
Serves 4 generously
5 cloves of garlic
Thumb sized piece of ginger
2 long green chillies
30g ghee (or rapeseed oil)
2tsp cumin seeds
1tbsp coriander seeds
1 stick cinnamon
2 brown onions
700g goat meat (shoulder is good, and use mutton or lamb if you can’t find goat)
1/2tsp cayenne pepper
500ml vegetable stock
Mortar and pestle or food processor or knife and chopping board
Heavy bottomed frying pan or casserole dish with a lid
The simplest of curries – a classic fragrant spice mix with some meat, potatoes and stock. Similar to a British stew, in many ways, but unlike anything Becky Sharp would have tasted before. Photograph: Kate Young/Little Library Cafe
1 Bash (in a mortar and pestle), blitz (in a food processor) or chop (with a knife) the ginger, garlic and chillies to a paste. Warm the ghee in the pan over a low heat and add the paste. Fry for five minutes until almost overwhelmingly fragrant. Keep the paste moving so that it doesn’t stick to the pan and burn.
2 Bash the cumin seeds and coriander seeds and add them too, along with the stick of cinnamon. Fry on a low heat for a further five minutes. Dice the onions and stir them through, frying for ten minutes until soft and translucent.
3 Dice the meat into 2cm pieces and tip these in too. Increase the heat to medium. Add the turmeric and cayenne pepper and coat the meat in the spices while browning it on all sides.
4 Add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce to a low simmer, cover with a lid and cook for an hour until the meat is tender. Add some more stock if the goat is drying out at any point.
5 Peel and chop the potatoes into 2cm dice and add this too. Stir, then cook, with the lid on, for a further twenty minutes. The potato should be tender and the meat meltingly soft.
6 Serve the curry with chapatis, naan or rice and some chutney or hot lime pickle. It’s also (along with every other curry I’ve eaten) perfect for reheating the next day.
Serve with chutney or hot lime pickle. Photograph: Kate Young/Little Library Cafe