My parents were the first to leave India on my dad’s side, making them a Lewis and Clark of sorts. In the early sixties, they were among a handful of Indians who had chartered a path to North America (and encountered women smoking and teens “staying out all night”). Like many immigrants, they left the old country in pursuit of a dream: to ensure that my dad obtained the best possible medical training. That pursuit led them on many grand, yet unpredictable adventures including a six month stint in the Canadian Yukon.
In 1969, my dad accepted a position as a surgeon in Churchill, Manitoba. Neither of my parents really understood where it was located. My mom’s philosophy had always been if a place was far away (and hard to spell), it was worth exploring. Just before they left for Churchill a friend told them polar bears would be there to receive them. That sounded absurd.
To this day, there are no roads leading into Churchill. So a few weeks before embarking, my dad shipped their black Beetle Bug on ahead by freight train. Due to heavy snow fall, it would remain hidden, like a hibernating black bear, for much of the year.
When my family arrived in Churchill in July, there were large slabs of ice topping the Hudson Bay. Freezing temperatures arrived just a few months later, and to prepare for dips to 30 degrees below, my parents replaced the down-lined coats that had warded off frost-bite in the American Midwest with fur-trimmed parkas. My mom’s coat was custom-made by Eskimos and included the snow white pelt of an artic fox.
Just before the Hudson Bay froze over, polar bears showed up by the hundreds – thick-necked and hulking - to hunt for seal. The sea ice made for the perfect perch. On occasion, bears would wander into town looking for food. My brother remembers hearing The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) warn parents via loud speaker when they were sighted and watching a mama and baby bear lumbering across the snow through a large picture window at the Trading post.
Flavored with three belly warming spices, this is a wonderful cold weather dish. Serve is with parboiled rice or basmati rice
3 tablespoons canola oil
5 black peppercorns
2 (1-inch) cinnamon sticks
8 cardamom pods
2 cups roughly chopped onions
1 jalapeno, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
1½ tablespoons minced ginger
1 cup roughly chopped tomatoes
10 to 15 fresh curry leaves or 5 sprigs of cilantro
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, rinsed and cut into 2-inch pieces
½ cup roughly chopped potatoes
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coconut milk
½ teaspoon vinegar
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and cardamom pods. Stir and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the onions, jalapeno, and ginger. Cook stirring frequently until the onions become translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and curry leaves, if using, and stir.
When the tomatoes start to soften, add the chicken, potatoes, water, and salt. Stir. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cover. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chicken flakes when pulled with a fork.
Add the coconut milk, vinegar, and cilantro (if using in place of the curry leaves). Stir gently and cook for another minute.
Remove the jalapeno, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon before serving.