A MIRACULOUS CURRY

My Madeleine: joining our series on the food of memories, the novelist Tash Aw shows how kari ayam and rice came to his rescue in rural Malaysia

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

When I was passing through Bangkok recently, a friend took me to dinner at a fashionable restaurant, nestled at the end of a narrow soi behind a nondescript business hotel. We ate a dazzling array of traditionally prepared, farm-to-table dishes in a room that was painted black and gold; the music was a funky mix of Thai disco from the 1970s. But somewhere between the ginger martinis and the amuse-bouche of shredded river fish infused with rice liquor, I began to feel—as I quite often do in smart restaurants—a longing for one simple dish, as if my palate wasn’t up to the task of discerning the myriad flavours on offer. Then the waiter delivered a bowl of old-fashioned chicken curry, ready to be spooned over a heap of steamed rice. Instantly, I felt grounded.

From the age of six to 16, I spent all my school holidays with my grandparents, who lived on the banks of a great muddy river in the heart of Malaysia. Their village was only 120 miles from Kuala Lumpur, where I grew up, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the construction of the highways that now cut through the jungle, the drive there from the city took more than six hours; it felt as if we were going to another country. Indeed, in some ways, it was a foreign land. I had the ways and appearance of a kid who lived in the capital: Western-style clothes, decent English, a burgeoning interest in computer games. I didn’t speak the same dialect as my cousins and the other children in the village, so we communicated in a weird patois of Malay, English and at least two Chinese dialects, which made me feel hugely dislocated. I didn’t have any of my cousins’ rural skills; I didn’t know how to hunt for catfish or set traps for birds; I hated the bats that lived in the rafters of the timber house. At times, these holidays felt like a prison sentence. 

The only unequivocally happy moment for me was dinnertime. The entire family sat around a Formica-topped table and ate a variety of simple dishes: lotus-stem soup, long beans, deep-fried river fish. But the centrepiece of each day’s spread was always, for me, the chicken curry prepared by my grandmother.  

Less brothy than its Thai counterpart, more fragrant than its Indonesian cousin, a good Malaysian chicken curry—or kari ayam—is nothing short of miraculous. It nourishes you, body and soul. Everyone in Malaysia has their own recipe, their own preference for the thickness of the sauce or the precise weighting of each spice. My grandmother’s recipe seemed to me ideal—rather than ready-mixed dried ingredients, she would pound fresh spices and herbs such as lemongrass and root turmeric in a mortar and pestle. It was a time-consuming method, but it produced robust flavours that nonetheless retained what Chinese speakers call a light "mouth-taste"—sensations that do not overwhelm the palate. Simmered slowly over a low heat for several hours, her sauce always had a consistency that was thick enough to feel substantial, but never gloopy. It helped, too, that my grandmother used her own chickens, which she raised in a pen next to the kitchen: the sort of humble village bird that today would cost me £15 at a London farmers’ market. 

During these dinners, the linguistic and cultural differences between the various branches of the family melted away—perhaps it was the momentary distraction of the food before us, or perhaps it was because our shared love of those home-cooked dishes made us realise we were not so different. Whenever I recall those mealtimes I remember a sense of belonging and warmth that far outweighed the stresses of the rest of my time there.

Over the years I have tried with limited success to replicate my grandmother’s recipe for chicken curry—sometimes I add more star anise, other times I reduce the amount of lemongrass. The result is rarely spectacular, but, eaten with a hearty portion of plain steamed rice, always acts as a pick-me-up. In the depths of winter, after a trying day of non-writing, it warms and encourages me; and on book tours or research trips to Lagos, or Shanghai, or Bath, I know that things will turn out all right—as long as I can find something that vaguely resembles kari ayam and rice.

Picture: Tash Aw with his sister in the early 1970s, near the village shop run by their grandparents

Tash Aw was born in Taipei and grew up in Malaysia. He wrote the award-winning "The Harmony Silk Factory"; his third novel is "Five Star Billionaire".