from "Living Within", April 2014
For some years now I have been in search of a local source of curry leaves. A Malaysian friend has sometimes shared supplies when her family is visiting; a New Malden grocer, once upon a couple of years ago, kept a semi-reliable (if almost never fresh) stock next to the bunches of coriander; Asda at Roehampton was, oh so fleetingly, a surprise source but, more recently, “kari patta” has meant a trip to Southall as the only supply that I can find outside Soho’s China Town.
I believed Jamie when he started using them several years back and said the supermarkets would follow his example, but the best they appear to have done since is offer a few dried leaves in a spice jar - and, for the record, don’t waste your money; the essential nature, not to mention all the fragrance and flavour are long gone by the time the leaf has reached this stage of desperation. So, imagine my surprise when Fruit World in Claygate was spotted recently not only displaying bags-full of this holy grail amongst herbs, but also the freshest and most healthy looking examples of these leaves that I have been able to get my hands on for a very long time. Gold Star for Mick and the team for branching out (badum tish!) and bringing them to Claygate Parade; and here is a blatant plea on my part to keep them there.
These dainty citrus herbs take their common name more from the dishes that they get added to than anything specifically curry-ish in their nature. Bitter-sweet in their lemony fragrance, they are an essential part of much of the cuisine of Southern India and South East Asia. It is hard to describe their effect to those who have not yet encountered them but they are so very distinct that if a recipe requires them it is wiser to ditch the recipe entirely than to attempt to find substitute for them. Unlike our own bay leaves (which they vaguely resemble in shape if not size), they are edible, so long as not too aged or large; do not consume them without cooking them however - they will not only be a little tough but they have been known to carry toxins in their raw state.
But what, you might ask, are we supposed to do with them? Curry leaves can be added to almost anything. Originating in South India, they marry well with mustard seed and turmeric and with fish and sauces to which coconut has been added, but you can add them to an infinite variety of Asian or even Western dishes - be bold and dare to experiment - once you have a supply stored in your fridge, you will want to make the most of them. Always allow them to fry a little before adding most anything else to the pot; throw a small handful (about 20) into some hot oil or melted butter, this will both tenderise and intensify fragrance and flavour. As soon as they start to crackle and take on translucent patches, you are ready to add in whatever aromatics come next - maybe onions and garlic, ginger or fresh chilli - continue to build your dish from this base.
Curry leaves will perfume a pilaff or a lentil dish most beautifully. For a delicate pilaff, sautée the leaves on their own or with whatever other spices take your fancy (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom are all suitable bed fellows); add in some washed and drained long-grain rice; stir gently (to cover with the oil in which you have fried the herbs and spices), and fry for a minute or two; add salt and enough water to cover by just over a centimetre; bring to a rolling boil; stir once; cover with a well fitting lid and leave to cook over a very low heat for about 12-15 minutes. Leave to sit in its own steam for a further 5 minutes after turning off the heat (without, at any stage, opening the lid), fluff with a fork and serve with whatever else is on the menu.
Incidentally, for those of you interested in potential health benefits, The Times of India indicates that, in amongst fighting diabetes and anaemia, these include greying hair prevention. I will take this news, as I do almost everything that I eat, with a healthy pinch of salt; while delighted with the joy these leaves bring to my palate, I will certainly not be amongst those applying them directly to my pate.