On Curry leaves & conversations

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Some of you know that I had a mini-panic attack yesterday. One of my dear followers asked me quite innocently if he could use curry powder instead of leaves because he could not find any curry leaves! Words cannot describe the panic, the horror, the anxiety that possessed me that very instant I saw those words… I rushed to reply and hoped to avert what could have been a disastrous outcome for the recipe. We all LOL-ed off and for a few moments, I felt at peace. Just until fear revisited: what if other readers are inadvertently committing the same error?

 

In some regards, I consider myself a purist, of sorts. I believe that recipes must be tried the first time around, with ingredients and methods the writer intended, if not for any other reason – but merely to establish a culinary benchmark of sorts. To figure out what they meant when they used a particular ingredient. Allergens or dietary restrictions obviously fall outside of this process. But, once that mark is established, the cook can try out variations and adaptations to whatever suits their taste buds, the second time. This is where innovation comes in - where you make the recipe your own. And this is I am only half a purist :) because I love to create my own twist on the recipe.

 

Most folks who are new or unfamiliar to Indian food, or who have not been raised with the cuisine, associate the word curry with everything Indian. As a native of the land, I have spent the last 18 some years gently correcting anyone who will listen – that curry is not a generic word for Indian food.  

 

Allow me to share how the word curry or other phonetically similar words are used.

 

Curry

In India, the addition of the word curry within the name of a dish typically and colloquially suggests a preparation that includes a sauce. The sauce may be based in onions, tomatoes, yogurt, coconut, water, daal / pulses or a combination of any of these – and uses a variety of spices. The spice blends vary with each preparation based on what will pair best with the star of the dish, and can vary from one kitchen to the next. Essentially, any raw materials and any blend of spices can make a curry, as long as it includes a ‘sauce’. Curry is also often referred to as Gravy, and must not be confused with the Thanksgiving ‘Turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy’.

 

Curry Powder

Popularized by the British in the late 17th and 18th century after their invasion of India; this is a generic compote of spices that includes everything from the Masala Dabba or an Indian cook’s spice bin. 

Commercial brands of Curry Powder include as many as 16 different ingredients. I honestly believe Curry Powder belongs in a camping kit or a doomsday bunker if you can only survive on spicy Indian food. It is useful when space is an issue or longevity of your spices is questionable. However, it is essentially useless if you are cooking in an urban kitchen that includes the luxury of a spice rack and can hold more than the salt and pepper shaker. Curry Powder includes a host of beneficial spices such as turmeric, mustard seeds etc. However, fresh and whole spices are more beneficial than a powdered blend. The discouraging and most prominent limitation of Curry Powder every.dish.on.your.menu will taste the same because it will include the same set of spices!  It also imparts a strong Fenugreek smell on everything absorbent surface in your home – curtains, cushions, fingers, kitchen towels and then some. Think twice before purchasing it and at least 4 times before adding it into your preparation. And if you do, please don’t tell your Indian friends about it, because they will give you a lesson in Curry, again.

 

Curry Leaves

These represent the polar opposite of curry powder – it is one ingredient. It does not vary in taste, but it possesses magical culinary powers to transform every dish it is introduced in – into something different. Some people believe that it reminds them of a combination of anise and citrus flavors – others, can’t place it, but know not to do without it. It is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine to aid digestion, diabetes, skin conditions, kidney issues and hair problems (beat that, one trick pony Curry Powder). 

Curry leaves are not common in conventional grocery stores just yet. I have personally resorted to a few ways to extend the life of my precious purchase. Obviously some methods work better than others, but surely there is no need to spend $10.00 in gas to purchase a $1.00 packet of 50 fresh curry leaves.

1.   Freezing: A simple method, simply freeze the cleaned leaves in a freezer safe bag – in small portions. Wash and dry the leaves on a kitchen towel before storing them.

2.  Curry leaf oil: Heat the washed and dried leaves in a small amount of cooking oil until they blacken, strain and store the cooking oil in your refrigerator. Make this in small quantities of about half cup of oil at a time, as you do not want the oil to go rancid. Adjust your cooking oil needs prior to beginning the recipe and use a teaspoon of it in place of the curry leaves.

3.  Dried leaves: Although not as potent as the fresh leaves, I have frequently and deliberately left a bag of washed curry leaves wrapped in a paper towel, in the refrigerator for a few days. As the leaves dry, they are removed and stored in the pantry in a glass jar. Dried curry leaves are crisp and dark. They impart a mild taste to the preparation. They can be powdered and serve as an excellent substitute for fresh ones when making traditional South Indian chutney powders.

 

Kadhi:

A yogurt based dish served alongside rice dishes. It is mildly spiced with fresh and whole spices and may contain curry leaves. Kadhi also frequently uses a thickener – such as besan (chick pea flour) or white flour – for a creamy texture. Sauteed vegetables, and fried dumplings may be added to these for that additional ‘umpf’.

 

Kadhaai:

The word Kadhaai refers to a utensil similar to a heavy wok. It is employed in frying, stir frying and everything in between.

 

Kari:

This is a Tamil derivative for an entrée. Kari can refer to a dry entrée prepared without a sauce or one prepared with.

 

Of course there are several versions of Curry throughout the Asian subcontinent, mostly all derived from the original Indian version of ‘curry’. In essence, all curries represent deeply flavored dishes prepared with different spices and using locally available meats and produce.

 

At this point, it may be easy to guess why Curry Cravings’ exists and why I chose that particular name for my business. The Indian cuisine contains so many flavors and combinations – not just one standard predictable flavor that arises from a standard tin! Go forth, with your armload of spices; and with a little help from Curry Cravings you too can uncover and conquer the mystifying and satisfyingly delicious world, of Curry.

 

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AUTHOR

Nandita Godbole

Once a botanist & landscape architect. Now a personal chef & author, an artist, graphic designer, blogger & closeted poet. Loves freshly brewed chai, the crisp salty ocean breeze, watching monsoon rains & walking barefoot through cold mountain streams. Believes in the strength, positivity of the human spirit. Is spiritual but not a fanatic. Mom of one. Two, if she counts her husband.

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