Nicole Gajadhar has a life-long love affair with curry. The dish that sparked her obsession was the curry chicken and duck that her family would eat at least once a week, made from birds raised in their backyard in Trinidad.
“Curry is such a huge thing in my culture, which is Indo-Caribbean,” says Gajadhar, chef de cuisine at The Loyal in Manhattan. “In Trinidad, we have this thing called green seasoning, which is like all these green herbs and vegetables blended together. I always watched my grandma, my aunt and my mom make the spice paste. That’s what they would season their proteins with.”
It wasn’t until Gajadhar moved to New York and began exploring the city’s different neighborhoods that she developed a deep appreciation for the wider world of curry, from coconut-based Thai curries to spicy, sweet and sour Indian curries.
Now, she finds inspiration from all of these restaurants to create new dishes, including her vegan sweet potato curry, which is a customer favorite at The Loyal. The sauce—a blend of coconut milk, mirin, ginger, garlic and a homemade curry paste that combines tamarind with a variety of Indian spices—is a homage to all the curries she’s enjoyed over the years.
“With this curry, I wanted to do something that was a little different than what I know,” she says. “I started playing around with different flavors and looking at different recipes for different places, and came up with this.”
She first created this curry while working at Nix (which, like The Loyal, is owned by Chef John Fraser), taking advantage of the restaurant’s tandoor oven to cook the sweet potatoes—the “meat” of the dish—to caramelized perfection.
“No one believes that it’s vegan,” she says. “Usually, your brain automatically thinks of something creamy being made with heavy cream or dairy.”
For her, it’s got just enough of a throwback flavor to her family’s Trinidadian curry that it immediately takes her back to her childhood.
Here are a few tips from Gajadhar for making her vegan sweet potato curry at home.
The curry sauce is, of course, an essential element of this dish, but the sweet potatoes are the real star, providing the bulk of its texture. After seasoning, roasting and peeling the potatoes (be sure to reserve the skin!), you’ll char them on a conventional or tandoor grill.
“The potatoes should cool down before you throw them on the grill,” she says. “If they’re cold they stay nice and firm and they won’t overcook, because they’ll start cooking outside before they start cooking more inside.”
The grilling imparts a smoky, meaty, caramelized flavor and texture. “You’re leaving the potatoes on high heat, but a little bit away from the heat, so all the sugars caramelize and it gets this nice crust on it without the skin.”
Though Gajadhar says any variety of sweet potato will work in this dish, she prefers Japanese and Okinawan Purple potatoes. “When you’re charring them, they have a little bit more sugar content, so you get a different char flavor to it,” she says.
Gajadhar’s curry sauce may need to cook for more than three hours, but rest assured it is fairly simple to make. The cooking time is largely due to her homemade curry paste, an essential ingredient in the sauce, that requires plenty of time for the flavors of tamarind puree, galangal, cinnamon, bay leaves, turmeric and more, to marry. However, if you are looking to cut down on prep time, Gajadhar says there’s no shame in using a pre-made Massaman-style curry paste instead.
For the sauce, she blends the paste with100-percent unsweetened coconut milk (“make sure you don’t get sweetened coconut milk or coconut milk with a high water content,” she warns), lemongrass, ginger, garlic, onions, red chili and mirin. Despite using coconut milk, though, she contends that it doesn’t taste super coconutty and the milk primarily imparts a beautiful creaminess to the sauce. This mixture cooks on low heat for about an hour.
“The ingredients come from different parts of the world, like some of those ingredients you’ll find in my country, Trinidad, and then other ingredients you’ll find all the way across the world in India and Asia,” she says.
Because the curry sauce is a bit of a time commitment, Gajadar recommends making a big batch. The sauce will keep in the fridge for a few days, but the paste “can be refrigerated or frozen and it stays forever.”
While you could certainly serve the curry with your usual jasmine rice, Gajadhar has come up with a few ways to make the side dish complement the curry sauce.
“Typically, when I cook rice, I always add a little fat to it so it doesn’t stick too much together,” she says. “Instead of using olive oil or butter, I decided to add coconut oil, since the sauce has coconut milk in it already. It gives a really nice aroma to it because jasmine rice has such a beautiful, sweet aroma. Like, you just want to eat it by itself.”
Once the sweet potato is topped with a generous helping of curry sauce, it’s ready to be finished with the thyme-seasoned potato skins, which are fried in oil until perfectly crispy (they’re basically “sweet potato skin chips,” she says), and a “garnishing salad” of sliced ginger, lily bulbs, chilies, cilantro and lime.
The lily bulbs, which come in a vacuum-sealed bag, have a flavor and texture similar to water chestnuts. Like a lily bulb you would plant in the ground, these separate into scales that are slightly crunchy, but also delicate like a flower petal.
One tip Gajadhar offers is to make this curry in advance. “It’s actually even better the next day,” she says. “With curries and sauces, all the flavors kind of enhance even more once they sit.”
Yields 2-4 servings
- 4 medium Sweet potatoes (Okinawan purple, garnet or Japanese)
- Olive oil
- Fresh cracked black pepper
- Thyme sprigs
- 4 oz Curry paste (homemade* or prepackaged Massaman-style)
- 2-14 oz cans Unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 stick Lemongrass, sliced thinly
- .5 cup Ginger, peeled and sliced
- 6 cloves Garlic, crushed
- 2 large Onions, sliced thinly
- 1 Red chili, seeds removed
- 4 oz Mirin
- 1 cup Vegetable oil
- 1 cup Jasmine rice
- 2 Tbsp Coconut oil
- 2-3 Lily bulbs cleaned and stored in cold water
- Fresh ginger, thinly sliced
- Red chili (fresno, preferably), thinly sliced
- Cilantro leaves
- 1 Lime, juiced and zested
TO PREPARE THE SWEET POTATOES
Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash the sweet potatoes and season them with salt, pepper, thyme and olive oil. Wrap them in aluminum foil and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour. (Once finished, you should be able to pierce with the tip of a knife.) Potatoes should be soft but still firm—not mushy. Cool the potatoes fully, peel and save the skins.
On a hot grill, char the sweet potatoes until they develop color and smoky ember flavors. By charring the potatoes, it develops a meaty aroma and a crusty outer layer.
To prepare the crispy potato skin garnish, fry the skins in hot oil until crispy, then cool on a paper towel and allow the oil to drain off.
TO PREPARE THE CURRY SAUCE:
Add the onions, lemongrass, ginger, chili and garlic to a saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the onions are translucent. Add the curry paste and cook for an additional 5 to 8 minutes. It may stick, so keep stirring. Add the mirin to deglaze the pan. Add the coconut milk and 2 cups of water. Cook on low heat for 30 to 45 minutes. Strain the sauce. It will last up to 4 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
TO PREPARE THE RICE:
Cook 1 cup of rice, 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons coconut oil and 1 tablespoon of salt in a rice cooker, or place in a covered pot and cook in the oven for 25 to 30 mins at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
When you’re ready to serve, separate the scales of the lily bulbs. Then, prepare your garnishing salad by tossing together lily scales, ginger, red chili, cilantro, lime juice and zest, and salt.
Place a sweet potato on a plate and top with the curry sauce. Serve rice alongside the potato or in a separate dish. Finish the curry-topped sweet potato with crispy potato skins and prepared garnishing salad.
- 1 cup Garlic cloves
- .5 cup Tamarind puree
- 3 cups Vegetable oil
- .5 lb Long red hot chili
- 2 lbs White onions
- 3 sticks Lemongrass
- .5 lb Galangal
- 5 Kaffir lime leaves
- 5 Bay leaves
- 1 tsp Ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp Ground cardamom
- .5 tsp Nutmeg
- 3 Tbsp Turmeric
- .5 cup (or about 12) Cilantro stems, chopped
- 3 tsp Cumin seeds
- 3 tsp Coriander seeds
- 3 tsp Peppercorns
In a hot, dry pan (or in the oven in a roasting pan), toast the coriander, cumin and black peppercorns, and then grind using a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients to the food processor and blend until it forms a paste.
Place the paste in a pot and cook on very low heat for 3 to 4 hours until oil surfaces to top. Cool and store in an airtight container. You can also portion it out and freeze the paste for an extended period of time.