The word rassa had been buzzing around in my head like an orchestra of bumblebees on caffeine. So, that’s what I was going to prepare, for the weekend, I decided.
The preparation wouldn’t need much thought. But still, did I have what I needed? I had chicken breasts in the refrigerator and a few packets of spices—and a lot of help.
Rassa isn’t what passes around the world, from the curry houses of London to the train tracks of Tokyo, as “curry.” It’s curry, at its purest. It traces its etymology to ras (Hindi for “gravy.”)
The city of Kolhapur, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, well-known for its ethno-chic sandals, is credited with originating the dish: a creamy concoction of meat, veggies, fish, or eggs, stewed with grated coconut, a mandatory ingredient.
But my version, unrepentantly, skipped the coconut. A little flexibility couldn’t hurt, could it?
The best part of Indian cooking isn’t its heat. It’s flexibility. It allows one far more wriggle room to play around with the ingredients and proportions than any other cuisine I know.
It’s also infinitely more affordable. No recipe I’ve come across has listed as an ingredient an Alba truffle—which costs $6,000 per pound—or equally pricey saffron from Castile–La Mancha.
My culinary experiments have been much inspired by the motto of the outdoor cookery theaters of the British television chef, Keith Floyd: work with what you have.
In that spirit, I can get a wine bottle to roll out dough; beat eggs with a fork; toast a sandwich on a frying pan. This particular gastronomic expedition starts with boneless, skinless, chicken thighs. I have M. as my one-woman fleet. She can chop, dice, slice, rinse, and even attend to the scullery chores.
She sets out the yellow, plastic chopping board on the kitchen table, while I remove the plump poultry from its white Styrofoam and cellophane casing. I cut it into bite-size pieces.
While she fetches the bubblegum-pink colander to wash them in, I slice up a couple of red onions, finely. While she’s at the sink, cleaning the meat, I heft the cooking pot, and set it on the four-burner gas stove.
All of this proceeds without a trace of commotion or cacophony.
Indian food asks for lot of oil or ghee (clarified butter.) And Indians prefer not to spray it or drizzle it. They pour it, generously, out of polymer jerry cans. Which is what I did on this occasion.
M. and I take a nip of wine as the thin film of sunflower oil heats up. Then, I toss in the onions along with a blob of ginger-garlic paste. Once they turn translucent, I lower the chicken pieces into the belly of the pot.
Almost unnoticeably, they change color from translucent to an opaque white, and that’s my cue to stir in the spice paste: an impromptu mélange of tomato paste, ready-made masala, sriracha, salt, and pepper.
Occasionally, M. likes to go through her stack of student papers as she breathes in the aromatic fumes. I stare out the window, overlooking Brooklyn’s Chinatown.
As I putz around, I take a swallow of the Chardonnay, dump a bowl of water into the simmering mixture, and lid it.
Sometimes, I also throw in a yellow pepper and diced tomatoes to enrich the flavor. Just before I click off the burner, I sprinkle a few sprigs of cilantro over the swirling mass.
Upon tasting it, M. said, she’d like for me to cobble together an egg rassa next week. But like this one, that wouldn’t be an authentic rassa either.
Sidelight: Interestingly, Rassa is a tiny Italian town, with a population of 69, in the mountainous Piedmont region, in the ankle of the great Italian boot.