It took me a while to figure out what curry leaves were and I consider
myself somewhat knowledgeable about weird ingredients. I brought
them home a few times from shopping expeditions to Devon Avenu
(Chicago’s Little India/Pakistan) before I got it. This is not unusual.
I often bring home strays. I once found a small nut-shaped item labeled
“aritha” that I thought must be an exotic nutmeg-like spice.
I tried grating it and sucking on it and simmering it. It was soapy
and horrid. No wonderturned out it wasn’t a spice, but an Indian
I was much more successful with curry leaves. They are usually sold in
bunches in plastic covered trays in the produce section of South Asian
or multi-ethnic stores. They look like bay leaves or skinny kefir lime
leaves and are sometimes labeled kari leaves or methi neem. And no,
you can’t make curry powder out of curry leaves. That’s a whole
other thing (a British invention to try to simplify all those Indian
masalas down to a common denominator).
Curry leaves are used mostly in South Indian (Kerala) cooking and
also in parts of Southeast Asia. They grow on smallish tropical trees.
Mostly curry leaves are sizzled in oil and used at either the beginning
of a recipe or added as part of a “tarka” or flavoring at the end of
a recipe. I’ve read that they are slightly bitter and taste like lemon.
Not to me. They are like a softer, warmer version of garam masala,
maybe laced with some smoky citrus. I love ‘em.
Curry leaves seem to last for at least a week in the refrigerator.
They can also be frozen for later use. I just throw the entire package
in the freezer as is. No need to thaw them, just toss them in the
oil frozen. But step back! Fresh or frozen, curry leaves sputter and
pop when they hit hot oil.
Try the dal recipe below or visit the website of Suvir Saran www.suvir.com for a fabulous carrot salad recipe using curry leaves
from his book Indian Home Cooking. Or just experiment on
your own. This morning I chopped up some curry leaves and
added them to my scrambled eggs. Pretty tasty.
MIXED GREENS, INDIAN STYLE
1 or 2 hot green peppers (jalapeno, serrano), slivered
3 cloves garlic
1-1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger,
3 tablespoons shredded coconut (unsweetened)
3 bunches greens, choose from kale, mustard, turnip, spinach
2 to 4 tablespoons ghee and/or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Place the peppers, garlic, ginger and coconut in a small spice grinder. Pulse until a rough paste forms. Wash and chop greens. You should have about 12 cups. Don’t sweat it, proportions do not need to be exact.
Heat ghee in wide deep frying pan. Add the seasoning paste and saute for a few minutes. Add the greens and stir to coat with paste as much as possible The greens will shrink significantly, so just stuff ‘em in and put a lid on the pan until they wilt to a manageable size. This is a matter of a few minutes. Stir again and redistribute the paste. Add tamarind, cumin, garam masala, salt and sugar. Cook, stirring, until greens are done to your liking (roughly 15 minutes). Add a tablespoon or two of water if things get too dry, or additional ghee if something starts to stick or burn. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
RED LENTILS WITH CURRY LEAVES
1 cup masoor dal (red lentils)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teasoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 dried red pepper
1 green hot pepper (serrano or jalapeno), seeded and cut into quarters
10 or 12 curry leaves
Rinse the lentils well and discard any foreign objects. Place in a large saucepan and cover with water by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down to a low simmer. After about 5 minutes add turmeric, cumin, ginger and garam masala. Cook until lentils are tender, about another 10 or 15 minutes. Drain any excess water if you want your lentils less soupy.
Heat the ghee in a small frying pan. Add the mustard seed and cook until they pop. (Cover the pan briefly so they don’t escape.) Break the dried pepper into pieces and add it, the green hot pepper and the curry leaves to the pan. Cook for about two minutes, then pour the entire contents into the saucepan of lentils. Stir and adjust seasonings to taste.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
You’ve probably been served these lentil crackers at the beginning of a meal in an Indian restaurant along with some chutneys. The ones in the photo are cocktail size. The more common variety is 6 or 7 inches in diameter. To get them crisp and bumpy and bring out the flavor, you need to either toast them over an open flame or deep fry ‘em. Unless you know this labor-saving secret: Pappadums can be crisped in the microwave. Place them in a single layer on a paper towel and set the timer for 2 minutes. Watch as they transform into 3 dimensional, bubbly discs. It will take somewhere between one and two minutes, so be ready to pull them before they burn. Serve them with chutneys, crumple them as croutons or use them as an edible base for a salad.
Ginger Garlic Paste
I love cooking, but I also love having easy cheats when I’m short on time or patience. Ginger Garlic Paste is a great way to whip up a stir-fry or whatever without taking the time to mince garlic or grate ginger. Is it as good as fresh? Well, no. But it’s often close enough in my book. Buy it at most Asian markets or order online from sources listed above.