Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the comfort of curry and other reasons it's all in your head

As the holidays crash down on us with the same force as the economy, I have decided to declare December National Hangover Month in the UK. It seems everywhere people are complaining about the day-after-blues before heading out to their next “do” where they lusciously intend to partake in another lovely round of more of the same.

In my kitchen, there’s a lot going on: a lot of brainstorming, preparation, much chopping, a taste here, a spoonful there. I’m so full and Christmas is still a couple of days away…

Somehow, in my mini microcosm, there is a myth that I don’t indulge or succumb to the same weaknesses as others... People are forever telling me that they feel bad, that their bodies must be intolerant to some food or another, but that they can’t be bothered to figure it out.
“I don’t have your willpower” is what I hear most often.

I disagree. Mostly because when it comes to willpower, almost anything can make me lose control -- from roast chicken to chocolate cake – I’ve been known to eat myself silly on foods that are considered good, safe, allowed, like hummus or almonds or raspberries. Because as I have too often been reminded from personal experience:even so-called healthy foods transform into damaging ones when overeaten.

In the end it’s about what makes us feel good. And if something makes you feel bad enough, you’ll stop loving it as much. Do I miss bread? Oh God yes. Do I yearn for cheese? Mmmm -- the stinkier, the better. Am I willing to put up with being in bed for three days afterwards, my eyes swollen to the size of golf balls, my stomach cramping and unbearably hard, my head throbbing like a never-ending whiskey hangover?

Nothing is worth losing that much time over, not even the greatest of Stinking Bishops.

A few days ago, we went round to friends for tea. They had baked sweet, gorgeous walnut banana bread – a beautiful blond loaf of goodness that smelled divine and, judging from D’s three slices, tasted even better. (As I eat vicariously through him at times like these, three slices sound about right). Even though our friends apologized for not having baked something I could eat, and even though I honestly assured them that I expected nothing of the sort and that it was fine – which it really and truly was – by the time we got home, I was in the mood to indulge.

So we ordered curry.

I love curry.

Honestly, London has many faults, but it almost makes up for them with its curries. This specific place is South Indian, so most cooking is done with coconut rather than Ghee*. In my opinion, there’s nothing like the creamy, pungent spice of a great curry on a cold, dark night. I usually get mine with a paper dosha, a very thin, flat, savoury pancake made of rice flour. It sops up the curry sauce like paper towel does spilled milk. Though I haven’t yet perfected the left-handed mop as is customary in Kerala, with the help of a spoon, the combination of spicy coconut chutney and sambar, a lentil and vegetable side masala, are divine.

Since we returned from the wedding, I have put on one stone. A whole stone, fourteen pounds, almost six-and-a-half kilograms. Sure, there’s the fact that I ate a cupcake a day in New York, and then there’s the whole hypothyroid thing. But come on, a couple of weeks of baked goods and a little T4 slo-mo can’t possibly be that bad, can it? Still, it seems those extra bulges want to stay put. As the holidays approach, I have gone from acceptance to desperation and back again; with the hiccups of the purchase and sale of abodes kicking my comfort-eating mechanisms into high gear.

I have never dieted in my life. I have spent my entire life on a diet.

Both of those sentences are completely correct. In translation: while I have never followed any of the fads – Atkins, The Zone, etc – I don’t think I have ever put a bite of food in my mouth without attempting to calculate the calories and / or effect said morsel would have on the scales.

So what to do?

Last week, I figured out that the only ingredient I have added back since the wedding has been flour. Not the usual whole wheat versus white flour. In my life, it’s brown rice flour, chickpea flour, sometimes (rarely) corn flour – which is why I had been eating it every single day: since it wasn’t wheat, I had somehow decided that it didn’t count.

But I have discovered this week that flour is flour is flour. The way I did it was to remove it from my diet. Not forever, not even for a week. I did not eat flour for five days. Tuesday to Saturday. Just to see what would happen.

The change was remarkable.

I should be used to this by now, having banished and reinstated so many foods over the years. But I’m not, and I don’t think I’ll ever be. Doing such a simple test is like taking a black pen to a clear, white board, and drawing an endless loop right smack in the middle, starting small and going bigger and bigger – the repercussions of one small decision reverberating into so many others -- or the opposite, going from large, loopy lines and ending up in a single, simple point.

Which is what this is: a single, very simple point.

Within about forty-eight hours of removing flour, I felt as if someone had stuck a pin in me, let out the bloat, like air from a balloon. The doughy feeling was gone, as was the sag in my face. I woke up in the morning with enough energy to do the basic yoga stretches that I had become too lazy to do over the past couple of months.

Again, I’m surprised at how surprised I am. But mostly, I’m surprised at how quickly I forgot.

In the past, this would have been cause to strictly remove all flour, dough, batter from my life forever. But not this time.

Last night, nothing could have warmed my belly, or comforted my aching soul as much as that curry. This morning, I’m feeling the weight of the paper dosha, heavy with aromatic herbs and coconut milk. The stretches didn’t happen when I woke up around eleven – an inconceivable hour when I’m at my usual energy levels.

I feel it in every part of me, from my fingers, which are bloated and stiff (of course the salt-content didn’t do me any favours), to my distended belly, to my cheeks and neck, slackened like my brain.

Does this mean I’ll never eat curry again, that the paper dosha will be relegated to my already overextended list of foods I don’t eat in an attempt to feel, look and live better?


Even with all the after-effects, it was still a wonderful meal. I felt happy and sated afterwards, and I enjoyed watching a movie with my wonderful husband. The truth is that although it didn’t help in the long run, the curry didn’t hurt so much either. I’m up and about today, and almost, if not fully functioning. And it served a whole other purpose, nourished many different parts of my being, parts that aren’t any less important than my grumbling belly.

Next time, however, I’ll go into it with more information, open eyes, ready to complain the next day even before I place my order.

How I love a good curry.

* Ghee is clarified butter so out of bounds.

Chicken Masala:
(serves 2 good eaters with leftovers)
* 1 T chicken masala (this is a mixture of herbs including chili, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, clove, mace and fenugreek. I brought half a kilo back with me from India)
* 1 T coconut butter
* coconut milk
* 3 small onions or 1 -2 large ones chopped coarsely
* 2 T sugar-free tomato sauce (preferably one that is comprised of just tomatoes)
* 1 t orange blossom water
* Small handful of raisins
* 3 tomatoes
* 2 chicken breasts, cut into roughly even chunks

In a pot, melt the coconut butter.
Once it is melted, add 1 T chicken masala mix (add more or less, depending on level of spice desired - this mixture is quite spicy)
When the spices start to rise to the surface of the hot oil, add the onions.
Lower the heat and allow to simmer for a few minutes (add a little coconut milk if needed). Then add the tomato sauce, the rest of the coconut milk and then the orange blossom water.
Raise the flame and bring to a boil.
Lower the flame to a simmer.
As the mixture is simmering, add the tomatoes and the raisins -- this is to taste: tomatoes help make the dish less spicy and raisins add a touch of sweetness.
Throw the chicken pieces in. Stir them in well and raise the heat a touch if necessary so the mixture is properly boiling again. The chicken should be ready within 10-12 minutes.
(would probably be great with a little chive yoghurt to counter the spice, but very much optional)

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