Tapping the flavor of curry leaves

South Indian dishes often use the herb

January 21, 2004|By Barbara Hansen | Barbara Hansen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Curry - the word is almost meaningless. In this country it usually refers to a dish flavored with curry powder or something served at an Indian restaurant, as if all Indian dishes with spicy sauce could be lumped into a single category. This, of course, is not the case.

In fact, authentic Indian cuisine never involves the prepackaged combination of spices known as curry powder. In southern India, however, many dishes make liberal use of curry leaves. Despite their name, these leaves taste nothing like curry powder.

Curry leaves are small, about the size of a slim basil leaf, with a smooth surface and pointy shape. They add a slightly peppery flavor to all kinds of dishes, from stews to yogurts, from soups to sauces. Just as kaffir lime leaves add a particular touch to Thai food and epazote distinguishes certain Mexican dishes, curry leaves are a signature flavoring in south Indian cooking.

Once unobtainable here, fresh curry leaves are available year-round in almost every Indian market, and, surprisingly, they're less expensive than more common herbs in supermarkets.

They keep longer, too, and can be frozen. But the flavor dissipates over time, so once picked, curry leaves should be used as soon as possible. For enthusiastic cooks, the best idea is to plant a curry leaf tree and pluck as needed.

The leaves grow in neat rows on either side of stems, which are usually discarded. The leaves don't wilt when cooked.

Unlike bay leaves, curry leaves are edible and are considered by some people to have medicinal benefit.

You'll find curry leaves regularly in dishes at southern Indian restaurants. South Indians typically fry mustard seeds, curry leaves and chiles together to add when a dish is almost finished.

An example of this is kottu, a light, simple soup that contains shredded cabbage.

Curry leaves are used in other parts of India, too, especially the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Gujarati vegetarians like to dip their roti, a flat bread, into a bowl of soupy potatoes fragrant with spices.

Once you've tried them in southern Indian recipes, consider experimenting with other uses for curry leaves. They're a natural crossover ingredient. Drop a few into a pot of rice, for example. Or add them to soup. The curry leaf tree might be an exotic newcomer, but it quickly makes itself at home in our kitchens.

Kottu

Makes 4 servings

1 cup channa dal (see note)

6 cups water

salt

1/3 cup shredded cabbage

2 tablespoons thinly sliced red or green bell pepper

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds

10 curry leaves, or more to taste

4 to 5 small hot dried chiles (cayenne)

Wash the channa dal well, picking through and removing any dark pieces. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan and add salt to taste.

Add the channa dal, return to boil, then reduce the heat to simmer and cover. After 40 minutes, add the cabbage, bell pepper and turmeric. Continue cooking until the dal is thoroughly cooked and soft, about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours longer.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and chiles and cook until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes, reducing heat if necessary to avoid splattering. Stir the spices into the soup and serve.

Note: Channa dal is a lentil-like legume and is available at Indian markets.

Each serving: 219 calories; 13 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrate; 9 grams fiber; 4 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 21 milligrams sodium

- Palwinder Kaur of Madras Tiffin Cafe in Cerritos, Calif.

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