Curry leaves (Recipe: mulligatawny soup)
A couple of months ago, when I asked readers to help fill in the gaps in The Perfect Pantry, you responded with wonderful suggestions.
Aleppo pepper, yes!
Ponzu sauce, yes!
Canned whole pimientos, oh yes!
One reader inquired about fresh curry leaves -- did I have them in the pantry? -- and I confessed that I didn't even know how to use them, and had a hard time finding them in the far-between Asian markets here in Rhode Island.
A few days later, a box arrived, from Jaden of the fabulous Steamy Kitchen; in it, nestled among dozens of candies, was a bag of beautiful, bright, glossy, fresh green curry leaves, along with her amazing recipe for Malaysian Coconut Prawns with Cognac.
I'd been expecting something yellow, aromatic, and reminiscent of the ubiquitous Madras curry powder that graced the spice rack in my mother's 1950s suburban kitchen, and which was the all-purpose spice for turning any dish "Indian." How mistaken I was.
Curry trees, which grow wild in the Himalayan foothills, have been cultivated in southern India and, more recently, in Australia. Although the tree is deciduous, leaves are picked throughout the year. Curry leaves taste vaguely citrus-y and slightly bitter; their mild aroma becomes stronger when the leaves are bruised, crushed or heated. And they are definitely not the telltale yellow-gold of curry powder (which, of course, is actually the turmeric that's part of the blend).
Add the leaves at the beginning of cooking, quickly fry in ghee or oil, or chop into a coconut chutney or pickles; or add later in the cooking, to give a more subtle flavoring. Like the bay leaves they resemble, curry leaves often are tossed into fish, lamb, and lentil dishes, and vegetable soups.
Curry leaves have a short shelf life. Store them in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, in a plastic bag or, even better, freeze them. Do not remove the leaves from the stems until you're ready to use them; the leaves in my photo began to dry out the moment I pulled them off their branches. I learned my lesson, and left the rest of the leaves attached.
Though impossible to find fresh in any of my local supermarkets, curry leaves are available in the frozen food aisle of Asian and Indian groceries. Look for vacuum packaging, which does the best job of preserving the texture and bright color. Purchase online here and here.
Thanks, Jaden, for introducing me to curry leaves. They're very happy in my pantry.
Invented in Madras more than two hundred years ago, this soup's name means "pepper water." From Favorite Indian Food by Diane Seed, this recipe serves 6.
7 oz split orange lentils (masoor dal)
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
3-1/2 oz potato, sliced
3-1/2 oz apple, sliced
1-1/2 tsp vegetable oil
3-1/2 oz onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 inch square of fresh ginger root, minced
1 fresh hot green chile pepper (jalapeño or Thai bird chile), seeded
1-1/2 inch stick cinnamon
5 whole cloves
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
5 fresh curry leaves
2 oz creamed coconut mixed with 8 oz boiling water
2-1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp chopped coriander leaves
Wash and pick over the lentils. Put them in a saucepan with the stock, and bring to a boil. Slice the potato and apple and add to the lentils. Cook for 20 minutes or until all are soft. In a frying pan, heat the oil and gently fry the onion, garlic, ginger and green pepper. When the onion is soft, add the spices and curry leaves. Cook, stirring continuously, until the oil comes out of the spice mixture. Remove the whole spices, and purée the mixture. Pureé the lentil, apple and potato mixture, and stir in the coconut 'milk' and the puréed spice mixture. Add the lemon juice and salt, and taste for seasoning. Before serving, garnish with the chopped coriander leaves.