the curry alchemist

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My grandmother and my 8 year old self walked through the bustling Pudu (wet) Market one morning. By any measure, this place was and will always be an assault on the senses. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the smells incoming from all directions.

This was a “Granny visit” spanning 4 days. This also meant that I got to accompany her on shopping adventures… and today the destination was this market only a short bus ride away.

To my 8 year old mind, the market was not unlike a visit to the exotic bazaars of yore… minus traders selling magic carpets, of course.  I desperately wanted one (a magic carpet) and always looked whenever I was at the market.

Sure, there were carpet stores but the carpets sold in stores were never magic. Come on… everyone knows that magic carpets are only sold in bazaars… that’s common knowledge, right?

As we walked through the market, my grandmother was checking out and buying vegetables and such. I was looking up and down the aisles for the elusive magic carpet seller… but to no avail. Yet, little did I realize there would be magic up ahead.

By now we had arrived at the south end of the market designated for the sale of meat, poultry and fish. It should be noted this was also the wettest part of the market so one had to be on the lookout for puddles, the odd pothole and such. I was diligent with this task to avoid a previous incident when I had tripped and had to endure a bus ride home with my entire front side caked in somewhat stinky wet grime.

It was now onto the fish section to pick up a couple of pomfrets. Two months before, this was also the location where I was first schooled in the knowledge of choosing the freshest catch.

“You pick. We’ll need two for this evening.” she said.

So, I picked two with the clearest eyes and the brightest gills as I was taught.

“Good.” she said. “Now feel the belly. Soft or hard?”

“Soft.” Came my quick reply.

“Mushy or firm?”


She smiled at me, patted me on the head, paid for the fish. Then we were off to the meat section. A kati of fresh mutton was also needed.

Across from the meat vendors was where the spice merchants were set up. As soon as the meat was purchased she made for the spice stall on the end.

Opened gunny sacks filled with various spices surrounded a concrete counter on which sat mounds of ground spice paste. Each sitting a foot and a half tall. Chilies, turmeric, ginger, garlic, mace etc… sat on one side of the counter. On the other side sat several small buckets of ground dry spices… cumin, coriander, mustard seed, etc. The center was an area stained and polished to a shine from years of use. All of this emitting pungent and heady aromas blocking out the odors of meat and fish across the aisle .

A teenager sat behind the counter.

“Is your grandfather here?” My grandmother enquired.

The teen boy nodded and ran around the corner returning a minute later with a smiling old Indian man wearing a dhoti and a batik shirt.

“Hallo, Mrs. Skelchy… long time no see!”

My grandmother’s esteem in my eyes was always elevated whenever merchants and traders greeted her by name… and always with the highest regard. This happened often on my shopping forays with her.

“Hallo, Muthu… you look well.”

“Thank You, Mrs. Skelchy. You look healthy. This is your grandson?”


A little catch up chit chat ensued. At this point, I must interject that although I had walked by the spice counters on several occasions in the past this was my first actual stop at one.

“I need rempah for mutton curry.”

“O.K… no problem.”

The old man pulled out a trowel in one hand and a paint scraper in the other. He looked at us and smiled ready for the business at hand.

“Wet or dry?”

“Dry…” my grandmother replied.

“Bengali or Tamil?”



“Not too hot. For one kati, ah?”

Scraping a bit from the various mounds there soon was a colorful pile of paste in the center. He clicked the scraper and the trowel together three times. Then the dance began.

His arms crisscrossing as he mixed the paste with the agility of a dancer… and he looked like he was casting a spell . What made this seem even more so was that I could hear him humming a tune softly as he performed this ballet. Every now and then the hand with the trowel rose and came down into one of the buckets… then back up again sprinkling dry spices into the pile of paste he was finessing. I stood mesmerized.

At one point, while working the mixture with one hand, he reached under the counter and sprinkled a pinch of something over the mixture.

My grandmother squinted a bit, “What is that one?”

“Special… I make for you…”

My grandmother smiled. The old man smiled back slyly. At the end he clicked the trowel and scraper together and sparks flew. This was the crescendo… his party trick. Oh, and this was magic to an 8 year old!

“Ah, got fire! This one is going to be sedap, Mrs. Skelchy.”

He scooped it all onto a section of banana leaf, folded it into a package and handed it to me while my grandmother looked in her purse to pay him.

“The last time… the one I made for you… for chicken… your recipe… the serani one… “

“Ah yes… yes…”, finally paying him.

“Wah, very good! I tried. But missing something, yah?”


“You tell me, lah? So, I can make very, very good.”

“Another time.”

“I know you won’t tell me, wan… but must try, ah?”

“Thank you, Muthu… see you next time.”

“Thank You, Mrs. Skelchy… next time you must tell me, lah.”

Now it was my grandmother’s turn to crack a sly smile as we walked away. She wasn’t about to contribute to his already encyclopedic knowledge of curry mixes by betraying family pride.

I didn’t get my magic carpet that day… but I did see magic and tasted the delicious results that afternoon. That was also the day I learned never to give away all of one’s secrets… especially with recipes.