Some of the tastiest recipes come together by chance, and Haruko Dan’s keema curry with mutton is one such serendipitous example.

The 73-year-old essayist came up with the original recipe for “clean-up” purposes after the Dan family--of the novelist Kazuo Dan (1912-1976)--bought a boxful of coriander in the market. Haruko used the leftover leaves, plus a bit of mutton they had at hand, to improvise and create the dish.

The Dans were ahead of the curve, starting to buy coriander about 50 years ago when the fragrant herb was far less popular than it is today.

Haruko married Taro Dan, also 73, when she was in college, and the newlyweds settled down in an outbuilding of the home of Taro’s father, Kazuo, in Tokyo's Shakujii.

She learned to cook while helping in the kitchen where dishes were prepared for the guests of her father-in-law, who was known as an avid cook.

The elder Dan would cook a variety of dishes, from affordable and tasty homey dishes such as sauteed chicken wing tips to dishes from China, Korea and Spain.

Haruko says she learned the “freedom inherent in cooking” from her father-in-law.

“You can do so many things with pots you have at home and ingredients you can buy easily. He showed me firsthand that it’s not about ‘having to do things a certain way’ but about ‘you can do this, that and many other things.’”

Kazuo Dan’s style was to rely on one’s senses to cook freely without worrying too much about the amount of ingredients.

The coriander plants used in the photo shoot for the article were picked from the garden of their house on Nokonoshima island in Fukuoka Prefecture where the couple has been living since 2009. Some time ago, they scattered seeds in the garden and ever since, the coriander has grown naturally every year. Before the shoot began, Taro carefully picked the herb so the roots remained intact. The roots were rinsed, chopped and sauteed with onions.

Garam masala that is added to the mutton can be found in stores, but you can mix powdered spices such as cardamom and cumin as an alternative. Haruko makes her own blend by using the spices whole, before they are pulverized. If you make your own mixture, you can change the combination of the spices to suit your palate. Serves four.

INGREDIENTS

For keema curry:

300 grams ground mutton

1 clove garlic

1 piece ginger (half thumb size)

1/2 large onion

1 bunch coriander plant (70 to 80 grams)

1.5 Tbsp cooking oil

1 tsp salt

1 to 1.5 Tbsp garam masala

1/2 tsp chili powder

Bit of soy sauce

For homemade garam masala:

5 cinnamon sticks

1 cup cardamom pods

2/3 cup each of cumin, clove and black pepper (all whole)

1/3 cup whole coriander seeds

METHOD

To make curry, finely chop garlic and ginger. Chop onion. Rinse root of coriander well and chop finely. Chop stem and leaves.

Heat pot, pour oil and sautee garlic and ginger. When aroma rises, add onion, coriander root and stir-fry. When onion becomes tender, add ground meat and cook until it is dry and grainy.

Add salt, garam masala, chili powder and mix thoroughly.

Add coriander leaves and stem and cook further. When they become tender, pour soy sauce in circular motion.

To make garam masala, spread out ingredients on baking sheet and cook in oven heated to 90 degrees Celsius for about 30 minutes. Mix occasionally. Remove pod from cardamom. Wrap cinnamon in cloth and pound with wooden hammer or other tools. Grind spices in small portions with a mill.

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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column