Sweet and sour curry

I find the Cantonese version of sweet and sour sauces a little too sweet. This is not the fault of Chinese immigrants in India; the version you get in Guangzhou today is quite as sweet. The version you get in Shanghai is slightly different, but, if anything, it is sweeter. While I was making liver some months ago, I decided I would try an Indian twist on this. I’d already marinated the liver in a paste of ginger, garlic, and an extremely sour tamarind, because I wanted a change of taste. While cooking the liver, on a whim I reached across to where The Family had cubed some overripe papaya, and tossed some into the pot. The Family looked on bemused, “Do you know what you are doing?” she asked. “Of course I didn’t; I’d thrown sweet overripe papaya into liver. It was an invention worth running with. The next time it was overripe pear. Then The Family took over and did one version with tamarind and honeydew melon.

Sour tastes abound in the Indian kitchen. Apart from tamarind, we also have a jar full of dried kokum. The mouth puckering sourness of amla also can be seen in our kitchen now and then. Sugar was invented in India, and sweet and sour chutneys are common, as are candied sour fruits. But I don’t know of any Indian dishes which use the common souring agents with fresh fruit to make a sweet and sour curry. The somewhat stodgy taste of liver could do with a bit of life. So our sweet and sour liver, Indian style, is now a regular addition to our family kitchen. I can also imagine that unripe jackfruit can be curried this way; its something that I will definitely try next season.

Is this a rediscovery? Are there regional Indian sweet and sour curries that you know of? Let me know.


Green papaya was often used in a curry when I was a child. I would always mistake it for a piece of potato, and find it shockingly soft when I bit into it. It has an interestingly different flavour. Given its wide prevalence in India (after all, India rivals Brazil as the top producer of papaya) it is interesting that there is no Sanskrit word for the plant or fruit. Our word for it comes from an unknown native American word, which was corrupted to ababai after Spaniards introduced it into Haiti and San Domingo in 1521 CE. There are records of a very early modern introduction of the fruit into the Malaya archipelago (where ababai was further corrupted into papaya), and from there to India. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten wrote in 1593 CE about finding papaya in the Philippines, Malaya, and India, and traced the route of the tree to these three places in this order. His book was apparently considered a state secret in the Netherlands for several years! This tells us a lot about the financial markets of early modern Europe.

But before that? Wide deforestation prevents complete tracing of the wild ancestors of papaya, but evidence points to its native range being somewhere in Mexico. From genomic studies of the plant it can be inferred that the hermaphroditic variety which is widely used in cultivation, and the recessive gene which gives the red colour to the ripe flesh, rose about 4000 years ago. This coincides with the rise of the Maya. So, despite the absence of archaeological remnants of the early seeds and pollen, the consensus of current opinion is that the early Maya began the domestication of papaya, New evidence can always changes opinion, so I accept this now as a working hypothesis while I get ready to carve up the fruit which you see in the featured photo.

Myanmar street food

Street ices in Myanmar

I began to discover street food in Myanmar today. The simplest are roasted corn on the cob and roasted sweet potatoes, like in the featured photo above. (Did you notice a funny thing about the stall: it has a mirror?) And the food gets more interesting from there. Ice cream is a great favourite: from the intensely coloured sorbets like the one you see in the photo here, to wonderfully creamy durian flavoured ice creams. On a Sunday it is easy to figure out what are particular favourites. In the middle of the day ice cream was the big draw. Tea shops are next in popularity. This is familiar enough to give me a handle on the rest of the food.

Schoolgirl waiting for bhel in Myanmar

I discovered one more fact which explained what makes it possible for school children to have roadside snacks: there is a 50 kyat note. So all the blogs and travel sites which said that the lowest currency note is 100 kyat are wrong.

A very popular snack later in the day was a spicy mixture of various things tossed together. You can see two kinds of guavas (the white discs with green skin), papaya cut into long strips, onions chopped into small pieces, tamarind (the dark matter) and a familiar tart tasting red fruit which I could not put a name to. All this was mixed with a secret sauce from the pot. This is very similar to many Indian snacks like bhel.