by Kate Heyhoe
Desperately seeking curry leaves, I drove two hours recently to Little Bombay, a neighborhood in Artesia, California. There is no substitute for curry leaves in Indian cooking. Either you have them or you don't. If you don't, then you simply prepare the recipe without them.
But if you do have fresh curry leaves, ah!—you are blessed with what I consider one of the most seductive of seasonings. Not the same as curry powder (which is an unrelated blend of many spices), fragrant curry leaves infuse a dish with subtle warmth, hints of lemon and sage, and an overall flavor that's difficult to describe because it is so unique. (The Misleading Curry Leaf presents a Curry Leaf Profile and photo.)
So every few months when I get a hankering for curry leaves, I do the Southern California freeway-crawl to the nearest Indian market, loading up on dal, ghee, and naan while I'm there. Back at home, I do three things to stretch the longevity of my precious curry leaves. First, I wrap some of them in paper towels, seal them tightly in a zipper bag, and store them in the crisper for immediate use; they'll last two or three weeks this way. Next, I seal a few sprigs airtight using my FoodSaver vacuum sealer machine; then I freeze them. They lose some potency, but in a pinch they're not bad and definitely more flavorful than dried curry leaves, which aren't worth the money.
Finally, I make a tarka. Tarkas are spices and herbs fried in hot ghee or oil. The oil becomes richly infused with their essences and is used to season other dishes. The tarka may be made at the beginning of the cooking process, before adding the raw dal, rice, or vegetable, for instance. Or, it may be fried at the end and poured over the top. Tarkas may contain cumin seeds, mustard seeds, asafetida, chiles, sesame, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, and other spices, in any number of combinations.
Tarkas (also known as tarda, baghar or chonk) are usually made fresh, at the same time as the dish they are to season. But with curry leaves being such a rare ingredient for me, I fry them up in my own tarka blend of seasonings and ghee, in a large batch, then refrigerate them in a glass mason jar. The tarka keeps for weeks and preserves the flavors of the fried curry leaves and spices well. A spoonful stirred in here and there and I feel like I'm in Kerala, or at least Little Bombay.
Of course you don't have to use curry leaves to make a tasty tarka. Omit the curry leaves in the Curry Leaf Tarka recipe below, or replace them with cumin seeds, and you'll still have a handy, near-instant, exotic seasoning to drizzle on such dishes as soups, dals, raitas, or to baste on grilled meats. In the eggplant recipe, the same tarka permeates eggplants and bell peppers in a fast stir-fry, compatible with Indian and some Asian dishes.
Kate's Global Kitchen for October 2002:
10/04/02 Ukrainian Mushroom Feasts
10/11/02 Tarka, Ghee and Me: Quick Warm Ups with Indian Spices
10/18/02 New Zealand Spinach, or Bushy Warrigal Greens
10/25/02 Taking the Pumpkin Out of the Pie
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 2002
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