When I reach for the kimchi or to gochujan (a spicy red paste) most Koreans will ask “Oh, you like spicy food?” I seem to be an anomaly – a Westerner that likes spicy food. There are two parts of that question that get me though: a) do westerners really not like spicy food? And b) is kimchi actually “spicy?”
If I say “I like spicy food,” what would you think? Would you think that I like to drench everything I eat in Texas Pete? Would you think I like the astringent flavor of raw onion in my burger? Or would you think that I like spice-rich foods like Thai, Peruvian, or Indian? That’s the problem with that word: spicy. It comes up a lot in conversation with “hot” too. Take for example: “God this food is hot.” It can mean two things, right? Hot = chili hot. Hot = temperature hot.
Getting back to the “spicy” conundrum, I have to say I like all kinds of “spicy” – chili spicy, onion spicy, and even spice-rich spicy. Given my gastronomical surroundings, I will either drench every bite of a salmon burger in hot sauce, or eat a raw onion like an apple (see: Louis Sacher’s Holes) or stir up some curry-laden dish to satisfy my need, addiction, to fierce flavor.
Seeing as I’m in the land of spice-rich food, with a side of palatable astringency, I’ve been doing my fair share of indulging my spice addiction. Kimchi, jjigaes, gochujans, wasabi, chili: I’ve managed to fit all of these flavors into my daily routine through either home-cooking, or through that quick and cheap lunch right before work. Another flavor has now joined the daily roster: curry.
About a month ago, a friend gifted me some extra spices (since mine were… well… sad). In that little package came cinnamon, curry, cumin, and some turmeric. With that line up, it was hard not to say yes to a foray into Indian cuisine: the land of flavor-rich food with a hint of chili spiciness.
Whenever I think of Indian food, I think back to Senior year at college, driving to the Indian buffet about five miles away from campus with a car full of amazing people, trying to fit in as much naan, curry, and rice pudding before the next class for a cool price of seven dollars. So, in memory of college days, I threw on a playlist I made during the spring, reached for some pumpkin, onions, garlic, and branded tofu, and dove into preparation.
I sliced the pumpkin thin, leaving the skin on for texture. A pinch of salt, smashed garlic, and chopped onion lay in hot oil on the stove, as I cut the tofu into cubes resembling the paneer found in the most memorable Indian dishes. I liberally poured in the curry, turmeric, and chili powder, but something was missing – butter.
A little butter goes a long way when it comes to spice – a dab of butter can deepen most savory dishes. Why do you think Southern food is so comforting and rich? Butter, people, it’s all about butter.
Now I didn’t go all Paula Dean on the dish, I was conservative, but that extra pinch of Southern love made the dish come together. The distinctive curry and turmeric flavors stood strong amongst the semi-sweet, nearly-caramelized onions, crisp and hearty garlic, rich, earthy tofu, and slightly sweet pumpkin. It was a fusion of sweet, savory, and Indian curry. And it was a spicy-good time.