Durban curry: Chop-chop, braise-braise, simmer simmer

2014-10-30 14:45

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Cooking from a new book on Durban curry, poet and cultural critic Rustum Kozain?discovers the perfect everyday recipe?

Durban Curry: So Much of Flavour by Erica Platter and Clinton Friedman with Devi Sankaree Govender

Paw Paw Publishers

143 pages


Abasic recipe for a curry from the cookbook Indian Delights (first published in 1961 in Durban) asks for onions, tomato, minced green ginger and garlic, some mixture of turmeric, coriander, cumin. Add some salt and pepper, and you have a sauce fit for global inundation.

You can vary the taste of this basic sauce by tweaking some or all of the ingredients. Chop your onions finer and you get a thicker sauce. Braise the onion with the turmeric. Add your cumin and/or coriander at a different stage. Notice how different the sauce tastes.

These ingredients seem to be the DNA of many curries and the variations will depend on their proportions and the sequencing.

This is the magic of curry. It allows for variations and can take on further ingredients and build to a dish of subtle layers, yet it will remain recognisable as part of a group of dishes we call curry.

It is, of course, true that in India there is no such thing as “curry”. (Probably from the Tamil word ‘kari’ – which means sauce or gravy.) In British colonials’ mouths, the word referred to whatever spicy dishes they might have eaten in India.

Purists pooh-pooh the use of the word, but it has become acceptable shorthand for a range of dishes with roots in India. As I learn more and cook more “curry”, of course, I am able to tell my rogan josh from my rendang, my pasanda from my Murgh Masala.

Historically, there are two broad curry traditions in South Africa: Cape curry (the one I grew up eating) and Durban curry.

Cape curry is traced to the rebels and slaves brought from mainly Indonesia and Malaysia by the Dutch during the 1600s and 1700s.

The various strains of Durban curry arrived with indentured labourers and merchants from various parts of India during the 1800s.

More recent immigration from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere add to the variety of our curries.

In broad terms, Cape curry tends to be milder and yellower (more turmeric), while Durban curry tends to be red, sharper and hotter (more tomato, more red chilli powder).

But these two broad branches were, and are not, isolated from each other.

Cape curry has its roots in India, given the deep history of Indian civilisation in Indonesia. Furthermore, a few slaves in the Cape came from parts of India and Sri Lanka.

Since chilli is an aphrodisiac, there must have been a lot of further mixing in the Cape and in Durban.

I’ve tasted a Sumatran beef curry in Indonesia that tastes like a Durban curry and also like many curries I’ve eaten in non-Indian homes in the Cape.

So was surprised to read Devi Sankaree Govender admit in her foreword to Durban Curry: So Much of Flavour to some disappointment when, in India, she fails to smell the familiar food smells of Durban.

There’s no doubt that recipes change over time and with distance. Curries in India will also have changed since the 1800s. She quotes experts who point out that Durban curries rely on more tomato and chilli than those in India.

But the Sumatran curry? An Indonesian dish reminiscent of a Durban dish? It’s a mystery.


I have an apprentice’s obsession with curries.

Part of my quest has been to find the perfect everyday curry. Why? When you struggle to think of something to cook, curry is perfect.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s quick: chop-chop, braise-braise, simmer away and soon you will have a delicious meal.

For years I have been cooking a lamb curry that has evolved – I realise now – from faulty basics, tweaked with insights, ingredients and cribs from here, there and everywhere. My partner loves this mutant curry, as do guests.

In my mind, however, there has always been something not quite right about it. It’s never had the taste profile of some mythical great curry that my taste buds yearn for – something I’ve tasted, somewhere, some time ago.

The book, Durban Curry, has taken me back to the basics and I tried the Britannia Hotel’s Mutton Bunny Curry recipe (with rice, not bread). It is unbelievably easy. I used some masala that a friend had brought from Durban, as is customary. Chop-chop, braise-braise, simmer-simmer.

I could not believe it. I could not remember where I had tasted this curry before, but this was it! It’s what I had been looking for as my everyday, go-to curry.


The book’s recipes come from a range of people: well-known chefs, family cooks, legendary takeaway cooks and equally legendary spice-shop magicians. One or two of the joints are familiar to me from quick curry forays during too-short, too-infrequent stays.

I’m sure a few Durbanites might argue over the omissions of their favourite curry haunts. But I’m from Cape Town, so I’ll stay off unknown turf. For instance, “Bunny joints have fanatical supporters, rather like football clubs,” says Erica Platter.

But the book does make me want to move to Durban. The design and photographs are bold in colour and the layout is clean. It captures Durban’s vibrancy, inviting the reader and cook to a bit of daydreaming while the onions braise...

Imagine easy access to The Spice Emporium, green mango for making atchar, the braised mutton curry of Durban’s Victory Lounge (next on my list to cook)?...?or Yoshan’s masala chops at the Maharani hotel when I’m lazy and have some cash?…?But watch those onions!

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