A Pet Peeve and A Handy Tip

So much has happened in the first ten days of the new year that I feel that things can only get better from here on. We've been sick, with Medha being the worse of the two of us. Add to it the sadness of having to put down our kitty-by-proxy when her humans were away on vacation. She was about 20 years old and she went into a sudden decline. It is the hardest thing to have to do, more so when it is someone else's pet. Luckily, we were all in agreement and the vet had kind soulful eyes that filled with tears as he spoke about options. Very sad. So I thought I'd bring out a pet peeve to cheer us all up!

<pet peeve>
Curry leaves are an essential ingredient in an Indian curry.
Curry leaves impart a genuine curry flavor to Indian food.

Dear God! Please! No!

What is genuine curry flavor? I don't know because—let's start at the very beginning—an Indian curry is nothing but a dish with a sauce or a liquid base that may or may not have a blend of spices. By now, most folks know that there is no magical curry powder. Curry powder was invented by the British and, while I may forgive you for having a jar of that in your spice rack, I won't be as nice if you think that adding a spoonful to your food will transform your dish into an Indian curry. No, it just doesn't work that way.

Indian cuisine is so rich and varied that even the ubiquitous garam masala is different from region to region, and from home to home. There is nothing to prevent you from coming up with a blend that highlights the flavors that you like. There is, however, a generic blend for garam masala based on the region and the type of food being prepared.

Curries can exist flavorfully without curry leaves.
Curries can exist flavorfully without any curry leaves

Curry leaves, on the other hand, are aromatic fresh leaflets of a compound leaf used mostly in western and southern Indian cooking, not so much in northern Indian cooking. The botanical name for the tree is Murraya koenigii, which is native to the Indian subcontinent. If you've had the good fortune to smell these leaves, you will know that they have a mild citrusy aroma and, therefore, you will not be surprised to learn that the tree belongs to the citrus family, Rutaceae.

The leaves are called kadhilimb in Marathi, kadipatta in Hindi, and kariveppilai in Tamil. The Tamil word kari can be translated loosely to mean sauce, and is often considered to be the origin of the English word curry. And therein begins the confusion!

It is possible to make Indian curries without curry leaves. Chicken makhani is a curry, yes? Genuine curry flavor but no curry leaves. Chhole—or chana masala as it is widely known in the US because that's what the restaurants call it—is a curry, yes? Genuine curry flavor but no curry leaves. Smart people usually get it by this point.

How are curry leaves used? Individual leaflets are often dropped into hot oil, usually with mustard seeds, asafetida, and green chiles—a phodni or a tadka. This seasoned oil may be the first step in cooking a dish or the last step. The dish may be a dry vegetable dish, a dal, a curry, a raita or even a savory snack.

Dried curry leaves have next to no flavor and the longer they sit, the more you can bid goodbye to the aromatic oils in the leaf. However, dried curry leaves are often ground to a fine powder and mixed with ground dals, tamarind and spices to make a dry chutney. When I had my own curry leaf plant, I made this chutney on a regular basis and it had a fantastic flavor of curry leaves, only because I had dried the leaves myself and used them in a chutney almost immediately.

Just remember that there is a Mediterranean curry plant, Heli­chrysum italicum but its herbal flavor is more like that of sage. Note the lack of the word leaf in its common name. This herb is not used in Indian cooking.

</pet peeve>

There! I feel so much better already! But wait, there's more.

Handy Tip

When curry leaves are dropped into hot oil, it is usually done with a great deal of flourish, resulting in a mess on the stove, adjoining counters and the hood. Think about it: when else do you knowingly add dripping wet leaves to hot oil? There is no need for this drama, truly. Unless you have minions to clean up after you.

My handy tip to you is really very simple:

  1. Dry your curry leaves after rinsing them in cold water by rolling them up in a paper towel or rubbing them dry with a clean kitchen towel.
  2. Always have a splatter-guard or a lid handy to cover the pan in which you are cooking, regardless of whether you have dried your curry leaves or not.
  3. Drop the curry leaves into the hot oil and cover immediately to avoid a mess.

Do the same for green chiles. Wash and dry them before you slice or chop them. When you finally add them to hot oil, your stove and your back will thank you.

In my last post of 2012, I had promised to share a recap in my first post of 2013. Here it is: 2012 Recap (with way too many pictures).


Anjali Koli said...

Sad to hear about the kitty. Do take care of yourself and Medha. Your peeve not only made me smile but also enlightened me on the curry plant. Cheers to TLO! :D

kia said...

Love this! Just had this convo on my Facebook stream recently. Curry is to soup as salsa is to sauce. Wishing health for you and your family plus my condolences over the sweet kitty.

Sarah said...

I've most frequently found myself trying to explain curry to my Southern friends (I grew up in Louisiana & Arkansas). I always tell them that curry is like BBQ...it's a general cooking method, not a recipe :)

Anonymous said...

Hey, Take care dear and so sorry to hear about the kitty!
I love the smell of curry leaves. They make a total difference in tadka.

Unknown said...

So sorry to here about the kitty. You have articulated so well the reason for the flash of irritation I feel when I hear curry powder and curry leaves mentioned in the same breath.

Anonymous said...

Mint retains its oils even after drying but that is so not the case with curry leaves. And yet when they are pan dried/fried, the flavour is stabilised. I don't understand the chemistry at all but that is how it is.
I once bought a jar of curry powder in the US just so I would know what the heck it really is!
But, is chhole a curry? I think it is usually not associated with beans and pulses.

Desisoccermom said...

Sorry about the loss of the kitty.
That was a very informative post on curry leaves which should be required reading for chefs and foodies(?) who claim to love "curry". I once saw Jamie Oliver throw four sprigs of curry leaves and almost a handful of mustard seeds to cook some kind of 'curry' dish on his show. I can imagine how pungent that curry must have turned out. And he thought he was cooking authentic Indian food.

Rumana Rawat said...

Take care And so sorry about the kitty..

Indian Food Rocks said...

Anjali, it's the season for colds, coughs and the dreaded flu. We're washing our hands very often! And thanks!

Kia, thank you! And yes, your analogy is on the money!

Sarah, I think you're thinking of the term curried more than curry. Curried is now used to describe anything that has curry powder or a spice blend. Indian food bloggers aren't helping much by bending over backwards to describe our food in English. I just saw a recipe for okra curry which has no sauce but has spices -- uh, which Indian dishes almost always have! O.o I know. And I'm sorry. My people are part of the problem! For us, curry is a noun and it describes a dish that is soupy or has a sauce or is a stew, not really a method.

Charul, the curry leaves we get here aren't half as flavorful as the ones in India. I have to use a lot more leaves. And, yes, they elevate a tadka to new heights!

Sharmila, soul sister!

madteaparty, dried mint leaves are pretty anemic but definitely better than dried kadipatta! My understanding is that the flavors in kadipatta are soluble in hot oil and it's the oil in the tadka that then transfers the flavors to the dish it's added to. And, see, this is what I mean! Indians don't know or understand curry the way it is used in the West. The Marathi word for curry or a dish with a sauce or liquid base is amti. And you can have an amti for nearly everything edible: dalichi amti (dal), masalachi amti (fish curry), moogachi amti (moong curry), and so on!

DSM, whatever was Jamie Oliver making?! We are a complicated people with languages that don't translate easily into English, making our cuisines that much more difficult to understand and describe. What to do? We are like that only.

Rumana, thank you!

Desisoccermom said...

Tonight, when I clean the kitchen and load the dishes, I will be thinking of this post and wishing for some minions. *sigh*

Manasi said...

I had a friend who called all subzis she made, dry or gravy based as curry... :)
I am so sorry about your kitty.
Take care of you and Medha.

And oh, much as I enjoy cooking, the cleaning part is a pain, I find myself wishing for a minion.sigh!

anna in spain said...

Poor Manisha, you have really been through it. I'm sorry it's been such a rough start to the year. Just remember, women are like teabags: we often give the best of our inner selves when we've been dropped in hot water and vigorously stirred! ;) Thanks for your post about kadipatta; dried in a bag, from the UK, is the only way I can get it here. I've tried it a couple of times and thought, "meh." Now I know why. Sigh!

Unknown said...

Why wash the leaves at all....the hot oil will kill all bacteria if that is what you are afraid of.....the little rinse of water will not take anything off the leave unless it is soaked for a while...

Pelicano said...

Very nice! And I'm glad you addressed this to dispel the annoying assumptions... pet peeve of mine too!

Indian Food Rocks said...

DSM, me, too! Me, too!

Manasi, I have no clue why they muddy the waters so! And, thank you! If I ever get to rub the magic lamp, I promise you that I will wish for minions for you, DSM and me! ;-)

Anna, I love love love that analogy! Thank you! It certainly cheered me up! I thought of you as I wrote this post, knowing that you can't get fresh kadipatta. The next time I see tender leaves at my grocer's, I am going to try making a thokku of sorts and if it captures the essence of kadipatta, there will be a bottle with your name on it. I promise!

Unknown, has the new G+ profile made you go into hiding? Or do I know you from previous comments on my blog? ;-)

I wash my kadipatta to get rid of dirt, dust, insects, as well as any powder or other residue that can be quickly washed away. That's the same reason I wash all my fresh produce before cooking it. Feel free to not wash it if that floats your boat. :-)

Pel, yay! You and me, both!

BTW, is 2013 the be-nice-to-Manisha-year? I'll take it, especially given the dismal start. I was whopped by a few other things a couple days ago, but I'm learning to take it in my stride. Life.

indosungod said...

Manisha, sorry to hear about the kitty. Hope by now both of you are on your way to recovery.

Curry for me is something with gravy which is in a way unique to Indian cuisine no?. Also when people use curry powder to refer to a blend of spices it does not bother me that much.

My neighbor gave me a bag of curry leaves. I washed and dried them with a kitchen towel and froze them almost immediately. I find that they retain their flavor at least half way through this way.

anna in spain said...

It's like the ubiquitous "curry powder." As if there were only one in the world. If I see that in another Web recipe I will scream. And I was just told by someone that she "hates curry powder." Repeat after me, all ye learner cooks: There are as many spice blends as there are cooks. If you don't like a certain one, learn a little and make your own.

Astha said...

My first time on your blog..it's great. Indian good does rock!

Sorry about your kitty :(

Coming from northern India, to make everything taste "so called" South Indian, we add curry leaves. I know it's so stupid, but oh well, I sometime do that too!

Bong Mom said...

None of the Bengali dishes have curry patta. A large part of eastern India are or at least were unaware of curry leaves until last century.

Now what is a gravy based Bengali dish then ? Curry or HaraKiri ?

Maven said...

Ah! The Curry conundrum! A pet peeve of mine, as well!

I loathe when folks respond with, "Oh, I don't like curry" when I ask if they like Indian food. AS IF the entirety of Indian food is just curry.

I usually launch head long into a discussion of, "Do you know what curry is?" And extrapolate/expand upon curry leaf; how curry powder could be any number of a combination of spices; or curry could simply be a dish that has a gravy to it.

And now I'm thinking of the dish Punjabi Khadi (sp)... I now have to look at my recipes to see if any of the khadi have kari patta to it. Sigh.

Then of course, there's the bajji, bahji, etc conundrum! My spelling for desi dishes will almost always be wrong, but at least I know the differences.

I think the whole curry conundrum is borne out of the non-desi tendency to just lump the entirety of Indian cuisine into one big nebulous, homogenous category, despite the fact that there ARE radical (and sometimes subtle) differences of the food from region to region. Heck, even in Tamil Nadu, Tamilian cuisine is (at a minimum broken down into Brahmin vs Non-Brahmin; not to mention Chettinadu and Kanganadu styles of cuisine). The differences of the cuisines on the subcontinent are endless. I'm about twelve years into what I hope will be a life long endeavor to explore those differences and enjoy the fruit of my spoils:)