Also Known As:
Although these aromatic leaves are sometimes used in Sri Lankan and Malaysian cooking, they're an integral part of south Indian cuisine and are often sold prepackaged in plastic bags at Indian markets. They're not always available, however, so when you find them, you should snap them up. Typically, ten or more fragile, pointy leaves, approximately the size of a small bay leaf, grow from a central stem. Dried leaves are available, but, not surprisingly, they can't measure up to the fresh. Don't be tempted by the curry plants you'll find in Western nurseries. They are not the same thing.
Selecting and Storing:
Fresh curry leaves are generally kept in plastic bags in the refrigerated section of an Indian market, although I've also seen them sitting out at room temperature. They should be shiny, dark green, and fragrant when crushed. Slipped into a plastic bag, they will keep for at least a week. I always buy more than I plan to use, and freeze the others in a lock-top bag. They will last nicely for at least a couple months.
How to Use:
Whole sprigs of fresh curry leaves are often quickly fried (because they can burn in seconds) in ghee or oil with other Indian spices such as mustard seeds and cumin and then stirred into a dal. They're delicious with chopped tomatoes or fresh corn kernels. Try chopping the leaves and adding them to scrambled eggs, or grinding them with coconut, chilies, and tamarind to make a chutney.
Soupy Dal with Curry Leaves and Lemon
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
In India, dal refers to a wide variety of dried legumes (often called pulses) such as lentils, peas, and mung beans, but it also is used for the prepared dish. Typically the legumes are first simmered without any spices. Only after they're cooked does the magic come in: salt is added, and spices—from cumin seeds to mustard seeds—are fried up in a generous amount of ghee or oil and poured over the legumes. I flavor chana dal, the deep yellow meaty split chickpeas (garbanzo beans), for this recipe, but yellow split peas can replace them as long as you shorten the cooking time. Rather than remove the curry leaves from their sprigs (if they're still attached), leave them in tact, so that they're more easily removed when you're ready to eat. Make a pot of basmati rice or a stack of chapatis to serve along with the dal.
1/2 pound chana dal (about 1-1/4 cups)
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 thin slices fresh ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves (about 20 leaves total)
In a pot over high heat, bring the chana dal and water to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, skimming the white foam off the top with a spoon. When the majority of the foam is removed, stir in the turmeric and ginger and cover the pot. cook for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the legumes are tender and the dais still soupy and rather thin. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt, garam masala, and lemon juice.
In a small sauté pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the cumin seeds, and when they start to sizzle and pop, after about 30 seconds, add the curry leaves. Fry for a few more seconds, taking care not to allow the leaves to burn, then pour the contents of the pan over the dal. Stir to incorporate and serve at once.
By Sara Deseran
Chronicle Books, June 2001
Color photographs throughout
Recipe reprinted by permission.
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This page created September 2001