I know what you’re thinking, dear reader, but you’re wrong. Unexpectedly, gloriously, this vindaloo is honestly, truly the perfect hot summer night dish.
Before my mother died, she would regularly send me parcels in the post. Sometimes she would send gifts (‘love treats’, she called them), sometimes practical items (once a set of snow shoe grips without explanation, which took me a long time to identify; another time, a dressing gown enclosing a clipped-out article on the perils of dehydration); sometimes, it would just be a card.
The cards would often be sent at times of crisis: when a long-term boyfriend broke up with me via email, when I was having a meltdown about work, when I was sad without rhyme or reason, or aching with homesickness. Their message was always the same: don’t worry, this too will pass. After her death, I learnt that she used to do the same for her sister when they were my age: cards with little poems, and jokes and words of reassurance that my aunt kept. My life and my aunt’s were peppered with light words of reassurance, anchoring us, reminding us we were loved.
The last card she sent me was just text on a coloured background: Divn’t Fret. I can’t now remember what the exact crisis I considered myself to be amidst at the time. But it sits on my desk, giving a combination of quiet support and gentle mocking of my ever-present anxiety. I know her handwriting is inside. I don’t look at it. I know the power of her handwriting. The story of her handwriting is for another time. But there it sits, telling me not to worry, safe in the knowledge that I almost certainly will.
The close weather makes me even more anxious than normal: its inescapable, threatening heaviness and palpable tension overhanging every movement and interaction make me miserable and uneasy. I’m short-tempered and uncomfortable and restless. Muggy, sticky days finally break and cascade into fractious rain-driven nights and I don’t know how to ease the worry, how to make things better. What on earth do you eat for comfort, for reassurance in this heat? How can food be a panacea when I can’t bear the thought of steamed puddings or dumplings or piping hot, silky soups? All my go-to dishes are unsuitable. Stews and pies and casseroles are plainly out of the question, overbearing and overfilling, but salads are flimsy and inadequate, offering no succour when night falls and thunder comes.
This dish is, I promise you, the answer. It is as balanced as the weather is unbalanced. When I am heavy and sluggish, it makes me feel invincible. When I loathe the thought of being touched, it makes me untouchable. When my sister first cooked this curry for me, and told me it was a vindaloo, my face must have fallen. Vindaloo meant to me bravado and competitive eating, heat for heat’s sake, a dish I would never choose to eat, where flavour was sacrificed for scoville scale credentials. That is not what this dish is. Its heat builds from the chillis but is tempered by the sweetness of the onion and the lamb. The potato gives the dish body without being rich or heavy. It cries out, as the weather does, for cool yoghurt and cooler beers. It is calming and cheering and comforting. It succeeds where just abut every other dish fails. Perhaps because it finds its parents in two hot regions, Portugal and Goa, it is a dish which lends itself to close, overheated surroundings. The Portugese brought the dish (‘carne de vinha d’alhos’; meat cooked in wine vinegar and garlic) to South India and the Goans later added the spice for which the dish is known today. But it’s the vinegar that’s the key.
In the early days, I worried a lot about cooking. I wanted immediately to be competent and impressive, but I had no intuition, no reserves of knowledge or experience to draw on. I shied away from cooking I didn’t understand, and I was confident only that I did not understand curries. Then I read an article by Henry Leon, where he explained the absolute basics of curry making and I felt like I’d cracked the code. It was so simple and actually made sense to me. So, with renewed vigour, and just a touch of bravado, I made this curry. And I felt that I’d been inducted into a secret club: a club that knew that all you had to do was loosely follow a few broad steps, and you could produce the most glorious of dishes.
For me, this curry decodes curries. It suddenly made sense of curry cooking to me. You make your spice base, and fry it off. You add your meat and liquid and allow to simmer. Add some potatoes if you want to soak up the simmering liquid. That is literally it. But the results and flavours are so much more unctuous and complex than such a simple recipe would suggest. The vinegar begins to break down the fibres in the lamb as it marinates, meaning that when it cooks, it is fantastically tender. The pureed onion in the spice mixture gives an incredible sweetness to the dish, which compliments the lamb, a naturally sweet meat.The combination of using a meat which produces fat and the oil from the marinade means that when you add the potatoes, submerge them, and replace the lid, the potatoes effectively confit. I promise you, you will never have eaten such tender, flavourful potatoes. I loathe the word ‘moreish’, but this is a recipe that makes you stand over the casserole dish and spoon directly into your mouth. This curry sings.
Every curry novice should cook this. There is nothing worse than a recipe which doesn’t work, which knocks your confidence, and leaves a bad flavour literally or figuratively in your mouth. This is the opposite of that. You will never worry about curry again.
The below is based on a Hairy Bikers recipe, with a handful of my tweaks. The original uses a lot more lamb than this recipe does. Their recommended quantities are 1.3kg lamb to serve 4-6 people. I use less than a third of this, and easily feed 4. They recommend using lamb shoulder but I use neck on the basis that (a) my butchers only sell lamb shoulders whole, and these are too large for my purposes, and (b) this meat is going to be marinated and simmered down for a long time: it makes sense to use a cheap cut and bring out the best in it. Don’t be afraid to ask you butcher to dice the meat for you, and to get rid of any really hard bit of sinew or fat.
Please do not be put off. This curry involves a long list of ingredients, but honest to god, is so straightforward. I urge you to have faith and follow the steps. Take my hand, and you cannot fail to produce the most
Remember: I tell you below how to make a relatively hot curry. The heat in this curry should not be a gauntlet, but a comfort. If that’s not your thing, that’s ok. Reduce the chillis and the cayenne pepper to taste and you’ll still have a tender, delicious, aromatic dish. And it will still technically be a vindaloo as long as you’re using the vinegar.
It goes like this:
Divn’t Fret Pet Lamb Vindaloo
Makes: 4 generous portions
Takes: 4 hours 15 (including marinade; hands on time about fifteen minutes)
Bakes: 1 hour 40
400-500g boneless lamb shoulder or neck, cut into smallish chunks
500g/1lb 2oz potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 2.5cm/1in pieces
For the marinade:
100ml red wine vinegar
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2 tsp salt
For the sauce:
125ml sunflower oil
4 onions, 3 finely sliced and 1 chopped
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3 long red chillies (do not deseed), roughly chopped
25g/1oz fresh root ginger peeled, roughly chopped
1 tbsp English mustard powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground paprika
2 tsp ground tumeric
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp salt
2 bay leaves
1. Remove any excess hard fat from the lamb. Make your marinade by mixing the vinegar, oil and salt in a bowl big enough to hold it and your lamb. Place the lamb in the marinade, swoosh it about a bit and refrigerate for two hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
3. Slice your onions. Heat 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a large frying pan and gently cook the onions over a low heat for about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Whilst these are cooking, place the chopped onion, garlic, chillies, ginger, mustard powder, cumin, coriander, paprika, tumeric, cayenne pepper and cinnamon in a food processor and blend to a purée.
5. Stir the purée into the fried onions. Add a further two tablespoons of oil and cook together until thickened and beginning to colour (about five minutes). Remove the mixture from the pan and place into a large casserole dish.
6. Drain your lamb in a colander but don’t throw away marinade! Brown the lamb in two tablespoons of vegetable oil over a medium-high heat. Once browned, add the lamb to your onion curry mixture.
7. Add the reserved marinade and an extra 500ml of water to the casserole dish, along with salt and bay leaves. Bring the whole pot to a gently simmer — this always takes longer than you think. Be patient.
8. Make a cartouche by placing greaseproof paper over the surface of the curry; place the lid on the dish, and cook for 45 minutes.
9. Remove the dish from the oven and stir in the potato chunks. Replace the cartouche and lid and cook for another 30 minutes.
10. Check your curry: is it ridiculously liquid? Remove the cartouche and lid and return to the oven uncovered for a final 30 minutes. If your curry is already looking pretty unctuous, replace the cartouche and lid before returning to the oven for the last 30 minutes.
11. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake: We eat this scattered with coriander, alongside piles of naan bread, (large) bowls of mint yoghurt, and bottles of very cold beer. Obviously.