Half Recipes Feed Yourself Like Someone You Love: A Recipe for Summer Vegetable Tuna Curry
The trick to a good nostalgic curry rice is to finish it with honey. Just a drizzle at first.
This is Half Recipes, a narrative recipe column by Nina Coomes on what it means to feed and care for yourself and those you love.
Summer Vegetable Tuna Curry
– half a box of curry roux; I prefer the hot kind, but if you or someone you love needs mild or medium hot, that’s fine
– two ears of corn
– four tomatoes
– one large eggplant
– one can of tuna in water, drained
– honey, about 1/2 tbsp.
– neutral oil, about 1 1/2 tbsp.
– hot, fresh white rice, enough for you and whoever you are feeding
– other optional summer vegetables: zucchini or summer squash, sliced into coins; sliced okra; handfuls of greens that wilt easily, like spinach or Swiss chard
1. This recipe is not for the classic curry rice that calls for meat, potatoes, and onions, one of the first foods I ever learned to make. In kindergarten, I donned a blue-and-pink Bambi knockoff apron and matching headscarf that my mother had made at her sewing machine, and I watched with the other five year-olds as our teacher taught us to gingerly hold a blunt knife and ball up the opposite hand, resting it on top of half an onion to steady it on the cutting board. We tenderly pulled the papery skin off each sweet onion. We slid peelers down the sides of scrubbed potatoes and carmine carrots. We cut each into big, disparate chunks, abstract geometry, the handiwork of children. As the vegetables stewed in a pot, our teacher directed us to the sink, where we took turns washing the silt out of rice until the water in the rice pot ran clear. I felt a sense of utter contentment when I sat down to that meal at the long wooden tables in the kindergarten hall. In my memory, the room glows soothing yellow, edged with pink, enveloping us all as we scrape our spoons against the plates. My first sustenance, my first full meal made by my own hands. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember how it felt: like an accomplishment, like nurturing, like something I’d created just for me.
2. Set your rice to cook however you so choose, whether in a pot on the stove top or in a rice cooker that plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” when you turn it on.
3. This recipe is a kind of spiritual cousin to the curry I learned to make at school, and it’s much faster to make. It is a curry that dwells in the soft pocket of summer produce already ripe and distinct with flavor, requiring little cooking time.
Roughly dice your tomatoes and toss them in a colander with a pinch or two of salt, allowing their flavor to concentrate. Slice the eggplant however you like—my preference is to cut it into one-inch cubes. Stand an ear of corn on your cutting board and carefully zigzag your knife down the side to shave the kernels from the cob. Repeat on the second ear of corn.
4. An optional step: To consolidate chopping and cut down on cook time even further, take your half block of curry roux and mince it into thin slices. It will melt faster that way.
5. In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat a tablespoon of oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the eggplant, being careful not to burn yourself. After the eggplant has cooked for four to five minutes, long enough for its creamy flesh to be seared on one side, add your salted tomatoes and kernels of corn. If you are adding any additional summer vegetables, now is the time for them to join the others in the pot. Stir to combine, and add enough water to just barely cover the vegetables. Let it all cook until simmering and hot, about eight minutes.
The last time I made this tuna curry rice was the day Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I was in the suburbs, a place that makes me feel guarded and cagey at the best of times. Though I wasn’t a particular fan of RBG, news of her death slung slime down the walls of my stomach. I knew this would be seen as a gap to be exploited, a perch from which to take aim at the bodies of women and people with uteruses. I swiped the news alert away as if trying to shoo it back into a time I didn’t inhabit. But it was too late; I was already shaky, mind racing, stomach clenching.
When I returned home to the city, I was hungry. I have always hated this about myself, the way I always seem to need three square meals even in times of duress. I feel it would be more elegant or simply more convenient to lose my appetite, to prioritize my emotions over a meal. But my stomach is insistent. My body always insists on being fed. That night, feeling unsure and afraid, I wanted something to eat with a bowl and a spoon, something warm and solid to fill my mouth my throat my belly. I needed a meal that required no effort and wouldn’t need my watchfulness at the stove, something I could leave alone while I stood in a scalding shower, trying to become soaked enough to feel solid again.
I had never thought of my ability to feed myself quickly and well as something to be proud of.
When I came back to my big orange pot, the gently simmering curry inside was savory, ready to eat. I couldn’t be bothered with the kitchen table; instead I sat on the couch in my bathrobe, spooning it into my mouth, my hair still wet. Slowly, I felt myself drifting back into the balls of my feet, occupying my body again. I felt the beginnings of determination or at least endurance, looking at the many dangers the world presented for a body like mine and taking a deep breath, fueling my flesh, ready for whatever was next.
6. Sprinkle curry roux flakes into the pot. The water and vegetables will pull together into a thick, glossy, almost burgundy stew. Flake your can of tuna into the pot for protein. If you have spinach or chard, stir it into the curry until it wilts.
7. I made this summer vegetable curry once when I was in college. I wasn’t feeding myself very well then, stuck as I was in the throes of disordered eating. But one night, a friend came over to my apartment and she said she’d already eaten, that I should eat dinner while she talked. A sudden exhaustion with calorie counting and thinness came over me, and I found myself whirling around the kitchen, making this curry in a fugue state. I was a vegetarian then, so I used chickpeas instead of tuna, though I didn’t check for lard in the roux. I sat down and started inhaling the hot, spiced curry rice, feeling a little ashamed, like I was breaking a rule by eating so vigorously in front of my friend.
She sat across from me at the kitchen table, and I remember the way her face was lit in glowing auburn angles from a small lamp, half her face in shadow. I misread her expression as shock at my animalistic appetite. Then she said, You’re amazing. You just made yourself this gorgeous meal in less than thirty minutes. I looked down at the slurry of bright spinach and starchy garbanzos, neat half-moons from my spoon left in the mound of rice. I had never thought of my ability to feed myself quickly and well as something to be proud of, not simply a task to be reluctantly undertaken in order to take care of a body. I scooped another spoonful into my mouth.
8. The trick to a good nostalgic curry rice is to finish it with honey. Just a drizzle at first—taste to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm the spices. The hint of buxom sweetness at the end of every bite stands in for a kiss, a hug, a way to hold myself warmly when I need it.
9. Scoop a mound of hot white rice onto a plate or a shallow, widemouthed bowl. Ladle the curry onto the same plate: the tomatoes slumping into ruby pockets of sweet-sour-umami, the grit of tuna, the pop of corn, the slurp of collapsed spinach, all swimming in a rich, hot stew. If you have rakkyou (pickled pearl onions) or fukujinzuke (a bright-red mix of pickled daikon, lotus root, cucumber, and eggplant) or any other type of relish or pickle, spoon some onto a small plate to alternate bites with your curry, cutting the silky roux with half mouthfuls of salty, vinegary pickle.
10. There are still days when I wake up and find myself hungry, go to the kitchen, and think, Again? Though I’ve put aside my adolescent habit of trying not to eat in front of other people, sometimes I still have to swivel my gaze around a room of friends or family and reassure myself that no one is appalled by my need to eat. I’ve learned to bounce that gaze, like a beam of light, back to myself: Aren’t I delighted when I get to feed someone I love and they eat with gusto, scraping the plate, asking for seconds? Isn’t it lovely when my adult sister rifles through the fridge, just the same as she did as a child, announcing her hunger in the hope that I’ll help her find something nourishing? Breaking bread with and for others is a joy; so, too, can it be joyful when I break bread, or make curry, for myself.