I grew up in a Gujarati family in Zimbabwe. As an immigrant, I’ve always struggled to feel at home in the U.S., 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 aren’t born in the state “from away.” At first, I found this endearing. But soon, I realized that no matter how long I lived here I would always be from away — unlike my husband, whose pale face and blond hair allowed him to pass as local.
Knowing the solace I find in food, my husband promised that lobster would be the salve for my isolation. In the summer of 2021, lobster roll prices peaked throughout New England. It was normal to spend $34 on a single roll. Still, on a humid weekend spent unpacking our new house, I insisted we treat ourselves. The rolls looked decadent: pillowy, buttered buns hugged generous piles of cool, creamy lobster meat. On the first bite, I closed my eyes, waiting for the delicate blandness to give way to an explosion of flavor.
But soon, the lobster roll vanished. I found myself unceremoniously using my finger to wipe up flecks of mayonnaise from the plate.
The explosion never came.
Undeterred, I tried lobster every way I could find it. Doused in butter. Boiled with corn. Coated thickly and thinly with mayonnaise. I sensed a hint of magic each time, but it was always fleeting. I felt guilty that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as everyone else was.
After several months in Maine, I developed a nagging sense that lobster would taste better (to me) if it were curried. When I was growing up, my family would haul seafood from Mozambique; we curried crabs, langoustines, and crayfish. The tang 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 kid when my father would take out his own hot sauce at a French restaurant and slather a delicate, buttery sole meunière with his spicy elixir. Locals insisted that lobster had to be eaten with minimal added ingredients so as not to overpower its subtlety. I felt déclassé for even considering otherwise. Once, I’d ordered a lobster roll with butter (Connecticut style) rather than 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?”
Eventually, though, I couldn’t help myself. Over Skype with my mother in Zimbabwe, I spent hours developing a curry sauce tempered with fresh curry leaves, coconut, and mustard seeds — flavors our family borrowed from the coastal towns of Kerala. The trick with the tempering (or vagaar) is to wait until the mustard seeds pop and little 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 as I watched them figure it out. At first, they were gentle, using silver spoons to swirl the garlicky tamarind broth — a perfect balance to the sweetness of the meat and brine of the ocean.
I grabbed a claw cracker and felt the stiff shell give way in my hands. Creamy curry dribbled onto my right hand and halfway down my arm. I remembered my grandfather in Zimbabwe who would eat dal with such gusto that he would lick his arm from elbow to wrist. I used a napkin.
Soon, our guests followed suit. All you could hear at the table was cracking, slurping, clinking of wine glasses. As I watched a fresh tablecloth become destroyed, I realized that this was an intimate experience. To enjoy this meal, we needed to leave Western ideas of dinner table propriety at the door and revel in the raunch of it all. It made me laugh more deeply than I had since we moved to Maine; I finally felt at home in my own house.
I hadn’t realized just how much our guests were enjoying themselves until Nicole, whose family has lived in Maine for generations, saw me struggling with the carapace of a tail. Without asking, she reached over and grabbed the tail out of my hands. With a swift wringing motion, she gripped it and twisted her fists in opposite directions. As the shell fell away, brown curry sauce spurted across the table and trickled through her fingers. A morsel of white meat coated in a brilliant orange mottle plopped into my bowl and splattered my bib with sauce.
“There we go,” she said. “That’s how you eat lobster curry.”
Lobster Curry Recipe
2 fresh lobsters
For the vagaar:
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons dried, flaked coconut
5 fresh curry leaves
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 dry red chile
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 white onion, diced
For the curry:
½ can chopped tomatoes, liquidized in a food processor
½ cup chicken stock
3-6 cups water, divided
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon garam masala
1 ½ teaspoons coriander-cumin powder*
½ - 1 teaspoon Kashmiri red chile powder (to taste)
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro stems
1 tablespoon Swad tamarind concentrate, or 2 teaspoons Tamicon tamarind concentrate
1 teaspoon sugar
1 can coconut milk
For the garnish:
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Step 1: After humanely killing the lobsters (assuming you’re using live ones), cut them each into four pieces: head, claws, and tail. Set aside.
Step 2: Make the vagaar: Heat the oil in a large pot set over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the coconut, curry leaves, mustard seeds, red chile, and ginger. Do not let the spices burn. Once the mustard seeds pop, add the chopped onions and turn the heat down to low. Cook until the onions are translucent and just turning golden — do not brown or caramelize them.
Step 3: Now, you can make the curry: To the onions, add the tomatoes, stock, and 3 cups of water. Stir, then add the garlic, garam masala, coriander-cumin powder, red chile powder, turmeric, salt, and cilantro stems. Simmer until the sauce thickens to the consistency of cake batter.
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 that the sauce seeps into the crevices of the lobster shell and thickens again to a gravy consistency.
Step 5: Once the sauce has thickened, add the coconut milk and bring to a boil once more.
Step 6: Garnish the lobster with the chopped cilantro leaves. Serve it piping hot with fresh sourdough or basmati rice and a lemon wedge for each guest to squeeze. (The squeeze of 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 venues such as Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Journal of Medicine, and the Yale Review. You can find him on Twitter @kkidia.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa