Magic Cook: There’s Something About Mary

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Watching Mary cook is a wonderful thing. There are no measuring bowls, no gadgets, no timers, and no timing. Lunch may be at 12:30, or at three. But as soon as you catch a scent of her art in the kitchen, you won’t mind waiting. You also know that when it arrives, it won’t simply be curry.

She paces from one end of the bench to the other, rubbing her thumbs and forefingers together, sometimes even shaking her hands in stages of desperation, looking for that perfect ingredient. The entire bench is covered with jars and crumpled shopping bags full of spices that look like weeds and dirt but taste like heaven. Sometimes you can see the proverbial idea-globe light up like a halo, and she will rush to the pantry to retrieve something obscure like maple syrup or Teriyaki marinade. She makes food like a mad professor, writes her curry like a story. Every time she cooks it has a slightly different ending, but it’s always happy, balanced, complete, and often with a twist in the tale.

She never writes anything down – she can’t read. She won’t follow a recipe, and doesn’t expect you to either. If she’s teaching and finds you with paper and pen out, she will purposely over-fill teaspoons, go too fast, sneak pinches and adjust later, just to make sure you are watching and learning HER way. Cooking is always done by feel. She dips a teaspoon in, drips it onto the skin above her thumb like a piece of snuff, and tastes it, assesses, shakes her head and resumes pacing and searching. And always more salt, more sugar.

She didn’t introduce me to curry leaves, rampe or tamarind, but for some reason, they never tasted or smelled as good as they have since I have been cooking with Mary. When she is in the kitchen on a Friday, cooking for her husband on his weekly visit, all our neighbours know. Sometimes they feign reasons to visit, and end up staying for lunch. One by one, our family pokes our noses into the kitchen, lift lids on pots, peer over her shoulder while she stirs. She always clicks her tongue and says “It’s ok, Madam. I made for you. This for the boys – no chilli. Here for Sir. Special sambal – good for sinus.” She laughs sometimes, and says “OOOOHHH, Madam! Don’t eat that! Too hot for you!” She should know by now that she has tempered my tongue, I now eat chilli like a Sri Lankan. But my white face and soft life always seem to throw her. Maybe she thinks my palate is as weak as other parts of me. Maybe, before, it was.

etimes I try and trap her. I go to Indian supermarkets and bring home vegetables that look like stringy beans from a triffid, gourds covered with acne, troll-like root vegetables covered in dirt. None are baffling, and always find their way to the plate with success. I have tried, several times to see if she can work her magic with what I believe are more western ingredients – she will attack smoked salmon, rhubarb or chantarelles with similar gusto. It won’t be like anything I’ve ever tasted before, but it will be good. Sometimes I display my envy by throwing down some basic ingredients, a vague recipe and command, walking out the door on Madam’s business – hoping in some insane way, that she can’t roast a chicken, crumb a cotaletta milanese, crackle a belly of pork. She can, even if she’s only ever watched me do it.

I’m sorry, I can’t share Mary with you. There is only one of her, and for the time, she is with me. What I can share are some recipes – some that are based on Tamil cuisine, but all with Mary’s stamp. But when you cook them, make sure you take a taste every now and then, and adjust. Maybe pace the kitchen a little, get into the groove. Put your own signature on it – Mary would like it that way.


Note – for measurements, Mary’s “cup” is 280ml, a teaspoon is 5ml, and a tablespoon is 20ml


Garam masala

· 1 tbs coriander seeds
· 1 tsp cumin seeds
· 1 tsp cardamom pods
· 1 cinnamon quill (broken)
· 2 tsp black mustard seeds
· 1 tsp fennel seeds
· 1 star anise

Dry-fry for a few minutes until fragrant, then crush in a mortar and pestle


Eggplant Curry

For the Marinade

· 1 tsp salt
· 1 tsp turmeric
· 600-800g eggplant sliced

Shake and leave for 10 mins, then shallow fry in canola oil until soft on the inside and crispy on the outside

For the sauce:

· 1 tsp kashmiri chilli powder
· 1 tbsp garam masala
· 1 tsp turmeric
· 3 1/2 tsp coconut powder
· 1 1/2 tbsp sugar
· 1 1/2 tbsp Seeded mustard
· 1 1/2 tsp cumin
· 1 1/2 coriander
· 2 1/2 tbsp white vinegar
· 1 tsp salt
· 1/2 cup water

stir to combine then set aside.

For the base:

· 5 cardamom pods
· 1 Cinnamon quill
· 5 cloves
· 15 curry leaves
· 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
· 1 tsp Ginger, grated
· 2 tsp garlic crushed
· 2 small onions, diced

Fry off till brown, then add the sauce, and then the cooked eggplant. Stir well over heat for a few minutes then serve.

Dhal (Parippu)

· Masoor (orange) dhal 2 cups
· 1tsp turmeric
· 6 curry leaves
· 1tsp salt
· 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
· 1 tsp mustard seeds
· 1 chopped onion
· 1 tsp chopped Ginger
· 1 tsp chopped garlic

Put lentils (dhal) in a pot on a medium heat with turmeric, curry leaves and salt. Then cover with water. Cook for about ten minutes. When nearly cooked through, add coconut milk.

Fry mustard seeds, onion, ginger and garlic until brown, then pour lentils over. Add more coconut milk/water if necessary to make soupier.

Chicken Curry

· 1.5 kg chicken pieces (Mary used skinned chicken thighs with the bone and breast fillet without bone)
· 1 tsp turmeric powder
· 2 tsp coriander powder
· 1 tsp salt
· 10 cardamom pods
· 20 curry leaves
· 1 cinnamon
· 2 tsp Ginger chopped
· 1 1/2 tbs garlic crushed
· 3 onions, diced
· Rampe leaf about a palm size
· 4 chopped tomatoes
· 2 tsp chilli powder
· 1 tbsp garam masala
· 1 tbsp roasted sri lankan curry powder
· ½ cup chopped coriander
· fresh chilli and sugar to taste

Rub turmeric, coriander and salt into the chicken pieces and set aside.

Fry cardamom, curry leaves,ginger, galic, onion and rampe fast for a few minutes. Add tomatoes, chilli powder, garam masala and curry powder, then fry for a little longer, stirring every now and then.

Add the chicken to the curry base and brown, then add enough water to fill pan to half-way, then simmer until chicken is cooked (about ½ hour)

Add sugar, fresh chillies and coriander to taste.

Mint and Coriander Chutney

· 6 whole green chillies (chopped loosely)
· 7 garlic cloves (chopped loosely)
· 2 bunches (3 cups) chopped coriander
· 1 bunch (1 cup) chopped mint
· 1 onion (diced)
· 2 tsp tamarind
· 1 tsp salt
· 1 tbsp sugar
· Olive oil (about 1 tablespoon plus 1/3 cup)
· Sugar, lemon and salt to taste

Fry off top 7 ingredients in a tablespoon of oil for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Do not allow to brown.

Place in a blender with other ingredients plus just enough water to allow it to blend (about ¼ cup). Taste, and add sugar, lemon juice and salt if necessary. Mary makes this dairy-free for us, because of our family’s diet, but it’s also great with a big dollop of natural yoghurt.

String hoppers

· 2 1/2 cups rice flour (Mary uses red rice string hopper flour – similar to appam flour)
· Boiling and tepid water – about 1/2 cup of each

Pour in boiling water stirring, then add cooler water alternating, keep stirring until the dough firms large clumps. The hot water ensures the dough is pliable, even though it is quite dense. Do it by feel – this should not be a sticky dough, but soft enough to squeeze through a sieve.

Place balls of mixture in a ‘Sevai Nazhi’ or Idiyappam mould, and press over bamboo mats into squiggly pancakes.

Steam on mats in a large steamer for about 3 minutes, or until noodles are not sticky to touch, then remove from mats and plate up.

Can be served with almost anything – sweet or savoury. Partner with the dahl, or even eat for breakfast with butter and kithul treacle or maple syrup.


· 2 cups jaggery, finely chopped or crushed (Mary uses a dark Kithul Jaggery)
· 1 tsp cardamom dry-fried then crushed
· 3 cups coconut milk*
· 10 eggs
· ¼ cup roasted and chopped cashews

Put a large deep pot with 1-2 inches on the boil. Beat jaggery, cardamom and coconut milk vigorously with an electric beater, then add eggs, continuing to beat. If necessary, strain out solids then blend them separately then add back to mix. Remove cardamom husks.

Place liquid in a buttered deep bowl with a lid, that fits in the pot (also with a lid) on the stove. Cover the bowl and then the pot, and steam for about 45 minutes, or until just firm (will still be wobbly, like a loose jello).

Remove lid from bowl, replace pot lid, and steam for a further 10 minutes.

Chill until set – about 3 hours.

*2 1/2 coconuts ground and blended with 3 cups water makes about 4 cups of strained coconut mil

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