A really good curry, cooked on an open fire

We have an abiding interest in simplicity, especially simplicity when it comes to cooking. Sure, it’s nice to own a proper range, but what is cooking if not the application of heat to food? And surely our ancestors didn’t own 24,000 BTU stoves with electronic ignition. They cooked stuff in a pot, over a fire.

So when I found this clay and metal charcoal burner at Tap Phong, my favourite Chinatown kitchen store, I had to have it. Some years ago my parents had given me a Le Creuset cast iron wok as a present. As a wok it was useless – it takes way too long to react to heat – but I could see it work with the burner. $24.00 later I was on my way home, excited like a kid the day before Christmas.

I decided to make a curry, a curry I’ve made so many times that I am very familiar with it. This would allow me to learn what is essentially a whole new way to cook without having to worry about a recipe. Here’s an approximate list of ingredients:

  • Chicken thighs, skinned, bone in
  • Potatoes, new, cut into quarters
  • 1 can of tomatoes
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 3 gloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 piece of ginger, about thumb sized, minced
  • 1 tsp of ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp of ground cumin
  • 1 tsp of ground coriander
  • 1 red chilli, or to taste
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 1 bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
  • a handful of curry leaves

Start by frying off the onion in a light olive oil, or ghee if you want to be authentic. I tend to choose olive oil for health reasons and I don’t find it changes the flavour much. The first lesson I learned was that charcoal gets hot – way too hot. I had to let everything burn down until the heat was low enough not to instantly burn the diced onions.

Once that had happend I sweated the onions for ten minutes until translucent, then added the garlic and ginger. Add some charcoal to get the heat up again – almost instantly – then add the spices and fry for another minute or so. Add the tomatoes, crush with a fork and cook until the oil separates. Stir in half the fresh coriander

Add the chicken and the potatoes and add enough water or stock to barely cover. Cook until the chicken starts falling off the bone and the potatoes are done. Take off the heat, remove the bones and shred the meat. Stir in the remaining coriander and serve with rice.

Lessons learned:

  1. The one thing I was worried about the most – will I get enough heat – was never a problem. If anything, I had too much heat at my disposal. The clay of the burner acted like a heatsink, once it was hot it stayed that way for at least an hour.
  2. There’s no precise control. In the end I just went with it, adding some water to cool things down when there was too much bubbling and then just let it reduce again.
  3. It will take time to master the burner, but I am already hooked. It is a very direct, basic way of cooking and the fact that I got a tasty curry out of it without any major mishaps on my first attempt tells me that there’s much goodness to be had this way.