Kofta curry, and cooking as homage.
Adapted from: Tejal Rao's grandfather's recipe.
I’ve loved the physical labour of cooking for as long as I can remember—the way the bees in my brain fall quiet, the meditative luxury of having a single task to focus on. But in recent years, I’ve also found a profound sense of purpose in the kitchen. This feeling shape-shifts depending on what I’m making: sometimes it’s nurture disguised in a curry; often it’s a brain-sparkle from familiar tastes striking against new contexts. When I embarked on the life-long mission of learning to cook the Chinese food of my earliest memories, it felt important, like a due homage—to my parents, and theirs.
This week’s recipe was a tribute of its own: restaurant critic Tejal Rao’s ode to her grandfather, and his kofta curry. In the moving essay that accompanies the recipe, she describes him as a man who approached every task in his life, however small and tedious, with devotion and care. It’s a recipe, Rao admits in the piece, that doesn’t live up to her grandfather’s standards:
“I think his kofta was better because he was really good, better than most other people, and definitely better than me, at every step of the dish. He paid attention. He cared.”
It elicited memories of my own grandfather: a quiet, patient and endlessly attentive man, who read me storybooks and fed me breakfast and showed me with a steady hand, over and over again, how to wet a calligraphy brush against an ink stone and write the characters of my own name.
I found myself wanting to make the recipe, thoughtfully and deliberately, as both our grandfathers would have. I found myself wanting taking my time, so that their memory could live on in each chop of the knife, every stir of the hand. I found myself determined to make kofta they’d be proud of.
The process felt deeply sentimental, even though I had no nostalgic ties to the dish. In fact, I’d never made kofta before—in case you haven’t either, here’s a little about it: the term refers to a series of meatball-based dishes found across the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Indian subcontinent. At its simplest, it’s ground meat mixed with spices and formed into balls or cigars. In Rao’s recipe, meat is replaced with black beans, bound by a mix of bread crumbs and egg, and simmered in a spicy tomato curry.
So, I took my time. Mashed the beans. Measured out the spices. Harvested herbs and chopped them. Mixed it all and formed the kofta by hand, my palm curling against each one. Roasted in the oven for the prescribed time and then some, so that they were a uniform golden brown.
The result? I mean, you’ll see. Good thing I’ve developed a taste for irony.
Vegetarian Kofta Curry - Tejal Rao for NYT Cooking
Let me start with this styled photograph from the article, so that I can better set up what comes next.
My particular brand of perfectionism (rare to rear its head, but potent when it does) is ill-suited to being on the “reality” end of an expectations/reality cooking meme, but here we are. Did I smush the whole thing out of petulant spite once I saw that a few bean balls had disintegrated into the sauce? Maybe. Listen, I’m working on it.
A few guesses as to why it didn’t turn out: inconsistent bean mashing (although I got in there with my hands, likely not enough—the direction to “mash with a fork” is not going to serve you), imprecise recipe measurements (what is “a small bunch” of cilantro? I probably overdid it), inadequate chopping finesse (next time I’ll blend the whole thing into a coarse paste). I don’t think an extra binding egg would harm, either.
Nevertheless, it tasted pretty good, which—so I’m told—is what counts.
Other regional takes on kofta:
• From Egypt, beef/lamb kofta kebab, via The Mediterranean Dish.
• From Pakistan, a spice-forward kofta curry, via Tea for Turmeric.
• From Turkey, kofta meatballs with a tangy yogurt sauce, via Two Purple Figs.
Is there a recipe you make to remember someone in your life? I would love if you shared it with me.
Until next week!