I grew up in a Gujarati family in Zimbabwe. As an immigrant, I’ve always struggled to feel at home in the US, but never more so than last year when my husband and I moved to Maine, the whitest state in the country.
Mainers call people who were not born in the state “from afar.” At first I found this endearing. But I soon realized that no matter how long I lived here, I would always be there from afar – unlike my husband, whose pale face and blond hair allowed him to pass for local.
Knowing the comfort I find in food, my husband promised that lobster would be the salve for my isolation. In the summer of 2021, lobster roll prices spiked across New England. It was normal to spend $34 on a single roll† Still, I insisted that we treat ourselves to a damp weekend with the unpacking of our new home. The rolls looked decadent: soft, buttered rolls hugging generous piles of cool, creamy lobster meat. At the first bite, I closed my eyes, waiting for the delicate softness to give way to an explosion of flavor.
But soon the lobster roll disappeared. I found myself unceremoniously using my finger to wipe bits of mayonnaise off the plate.
The explosion never came.
Undeterred, I tried lobster every way I could find. Topped with butter. Cooked with corn. Thick and thin covered with mayonnaise. I felt a touch of magic every time, but it was always fleeting. I felt guilty that I didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else.
After several months in Maine, I got the nagging feeling that lobster (to me) would taste better if it was curry. Growing up, my family got seafood from Mozambique; we curried crabs, langoustines and crayfish. The smell of tamarind unlocked layers of flavor that lemon juice couldn’t. But I was embarrassed to ask Mainers about the idea: I still remembered the cringe I felt as a child when my father made his own hot sauce at a French restaurant and smeared a delicate, buttery tongmeunière with his spicy elixir. The locals insisted that lobster should be eaten with as few added ingredients as possible so as not to overpower its subtlety. I felt de-classed to even consider anything else. I once ordered a lobster roll with butter (Connecticut style) instead of mayonnaise (Maine style). “This isn’t Boston,” said the woman behind the counter. “We don’t make that nonsense here.” Can you imagine if I had asked her, “Enough to make lobster curry for four, please?”
But in the end I couldn’t help it. Over Skype with my mum in Zimbabwe, I spent hours developing a curry sauce tempered with fresh curry leaves, coconut and mustard seeds – flavors our family has borrowed from the coastal towns of Kerala. The trick with tempering (or vagar) is to wait for the mustard seeds to pop and small wisps of smoke appear above the oil; add the onions before the spices burn.
Recently I served the curry to four white American guests. Two were born and raised Mainers who worked in local politics. I was nervous when I saw how they found out. At first they were gentle and used silver spoons to swirl the garlicky tamarind stock – a perfect balance with the sweetness of the meat and the brine of the ocean.
I picked up a claw cracker and felt the stiff shell collapse in my hands. Creamy curry dripped onto my right hand and halfway up my arm. I remembered my grandfather in Zimbabwe eating dal with such taste he licked his arm from elbow to wrist. I used a napkin.
Our guests soon followed. All you heard at the table was creaking, slurping, clinking wine glasses. When I saw a fresh tablecloth being destroyed, I realized that this was an intimate experience. In order to enjoy this meal, we had to leave the western ideas of the decency of a dining table at the door and enjoy the raunchy of it. It made me laugh more deeply than since we moved to Maine; I finally felt at home in my own house.
I hadn’t realized how much our guests enjoyed it until Nicole, whose family has lived in Maine for generations, saw me struggling with the shield of a tail. Without asking, she reached over to me and grabbed the tail from my hands. With a quick twisting motion, she grabbed it and twisted her fists in opposite directions. As the bowl fell away, brown curry sauce sprayed across the table and trickled down her fingers. A piece of white meat shrouded in a brilliant orange stain popped into my bowl and splattered my bib with sauce.
“Here we go,” she said. “This is how you eat lobster curry.”
Lobster Curry Recipe
2 fresh lobsters
For the wanderer:
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons dried, shredded coconut
5 fresh curry leaves
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 dry red chili
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 white onion, chopped
For the curry:
½ can diced tomatoes, smoothed in a food processor
½ cup chicken stock
3-6 cups water, divided
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon garam masala
1 ½ teaspoon coriander cumin powder*
½ – 1 teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder (to taste)
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped fresh coriander stems
1 tablespoon Swad tamarind concentrate, or 2 teaspoons Tamicon tamarind concentrate
1 teaspoon sugar
1 can of coconut milk
For the garnish:
½ cup chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Step 1: After humane killing the lobsters (assuming you’re using live lobsters), cut each into four pieces: head, claws and tail. Put aside.
Step 2: Make the vagar: Heat the oil in a large pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the coconut, curry leaves, mustard seeds, red chili and ginger. Do not let the herbs burn. Once the mustard seeds pop, add the chopped onions and lower the heat. Cook until onions are translucent and just turning golden brown – do not brown or caramelize them.
Step 3: Now you can make the curry: Add the tomatoes, stock and 3 cups of water to the onions. Stir and then add the garlic, garam masala, coriander cumin powder, red chili powder, turmeric, salt and coriander stems. Simmer until sauce has thickened to cake batter consistency.
Step 4: To the thick sauce, add the lobster, tamarind paste, sugar, and enough water (2-3 cups) to cover the lobster at least halfway. Bring to a boil for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and turning the lobster pieces over so the sauce seeps into the crevices of the lobster shell and thickens again to a gravy consistency.
Step 5: When the sauce has thickened, add the coconut milk and bring back to a boil.
Step 6: Garnish the lobster with the chopped coriander leaves. Serve it piping hot with fresh sourdough or basmati rice and a lemon wedge for each guest to squeeze. (Squeezing lemon at the end is crucial, but it’s nice to let guests do it themselves.)
Khameer Kidia is a Zimbabwean writer and physician. His essays have been published in locations such as Slate, Los Angeles Book Review† New England Journal of Medicineand the Yale Review† You can find him on Twitter @kkidia†
Louie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa