Serendipity. It’s what everyone hopes for on a trip. It’s unplanned by its very nature, but you’ve got to be open to the possibility and run with it when it occurs. Food editor Paul Grimes and I found it our first evening on a research trip in Paris. We were at Le Chateaubriand, where Chef Inaki Aizpitarte serves you what he’s decided to make. For the third course of a seafood flight, we got two beautiful pieces of salmon topped with a brown, pebbly-looking mixture. One bite and we simultaneously bent over our plates, trying to figure out what those dark bits were; they packed such a wallop of satisfaction. With an earthy aroma, it tasted like a very mellow curry with a roasted onion sweetness. There were countless spices, toasted until intensely fragrant. Stumped by what it was, we asked the waiter.
“Vadouvan,” he said.
We pressed him, “How do you make it?”
“You buy it. In the markets around here,” he replied matter-of-factly, sweeping his arms towards the 11th arrondissement outside the restaurant window.
Plans for the following morning were ditched in favor of a return to that neighborhood. We canvassed the area, asking for vadouvan in every market. Time after time, we were met with the same Gallic I-don’t-know-what-you-are-talking-about shrug. (Paul’s French is excellent, so I knew it wasn’t a question of pronunciation.) We’d hit a dead end. There was no other solution but to return to the restaurant and pry some more.
We swallowed our pride, and walked in just as the hipster waiters were setting up for the evening. The coolest dude of the bunch listened to our plea, and directed us to the Passage Brady in the 10th arrondissement, an alley lined with Indian markets.
At Velan, an Indian grocery store, we knew we’d found our treasure when our seemingly eternal question (“Avez-vous du vadouvan?”) was met with smiles and nods. The clerk pulled out a cellophane bag containing a moist, chunky mix. Bingo! He couldn’t tell us much about it, but that didn’t matter. We bought a case to take back to Gourmet’s test kitchen, and congratulated ourselves on having successfully tracked down a hot new flavor.
But that wasn’t our last encounter with vadouvan. A day later, as we headed towards Sur Les Quais, a specialty food shop at the Place D’Aligre, we checked the Pudlo Guide for the address. There, in the blurb, was a mention of vadouvan. Sur Les Quais carried it too. Our pace quickened. Were we chasing the vadouvan or was it chasing us?
Much to our disappointment, Sur Les Quais was sold out of vadouvan (Mon dieu!), but they sent us to their supplier, Goumanyat, in the 3rd arrondissement. Their vadouvan was chunkier and less moist than the Indian market one, but still bewitching in its aroma. We took a case.
Back in the Gourmet test kitchen, we couldn’t wait to show off our booty. There was a hush of contained excitement as the packages of vadouvan were opened and sampled. But almost immediately, noses turned up and napkins discreetly disposed of unwanted tastes. What a letdown. The vadouvan that had smelled so wonderful had turned rancid.
Paul and I couldn’t let it go. We had to come up with a vadouvan for the magazine. Paul found guidance from Pierre Gagnaire’s cookbook, as well as from Indian cookbook author Julie Sahni. After some tinkering, Grimes created a vadouvan that delivers spectacularly on all levels. By all means, make it for his game hen fricassee, then use the leftover vadouvan with Melissa Roberts’s shrimp. But save a little to stir it into sour cream; it makes the sexiest onion dip ever.