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019: Curry Leaves: If dark green had an aroma, this would be it (Herbs & Spices #4)

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

If the colour dark green had a smell, then the bitter heady aroma of curry pata would definitely be it.

Like victorious warriors, dark green curry leaves emerge crisp from the tadka pan, shining with a gleam of oil. They rise up from the heat of the vaghrane forming a holy trinity with tiny black mustard seeds and green chillies in their embrace. In some of the wars, depending on the mood of the cook, curry pasta warriors may call upon hing, white urad daal or yellow channa daal to accompany them on the battlefield. After the baptism by hot oil, the leaves are crunchy, and rightfully take their throne atop chutneys, kosambaris and poriyals.

English soldiers and merchants from the East India company created havoc when they appropriated the word ‘curry’ and returned home. The name was utilised for an invented ‘universal’ spice powder which in reality was not used in any specific cuisine on the subcontinent. It's similar to imagining that there is only one generic Italian pasta sauce, when every home cook in Italy has their own unique set of sauce recipes. The fascination with ‘curry’ gave birth to a movement of ‘curry houses’ in Britain and some of its former colonies. It led to a complete mish mash of food from South Asia, akin to the ‘gobi manchurian chinese food’ one finds on the road side carts of India.

As an international student in the U.S., I was asked on numerous occasions for my recipe of “curry powder” (see my longer post on this experience). By the end of five years abroad, I would cringe with irritation every time I heard the word ‘curry’. I was rescued from this onslaught when I returned home and was reunited with my beloved curry leaves.

Marwari homes do not fully value the potency of curry pata (kadi pata). The leaves are rarely used, and even go by the misnomer ‘meetha neem’. Neem belongs to another plant family Azadirachta indica, but the leaves do bear a slight resemblance to curry leaves.

My mother would put a whole twig of curry leaves in her signature kadhi, and they would boil these along with the dahi and besan. However, the entire twig would be promptly removed from the kadai and discarded before the kadhi was put on the dining table. In case a few stray leaves made their way into our katoris, we would hastily remove them without a taste. What a waste of their deliciousness! In place of the transformative power of an oil or ghee tadka, boiling curry leaves in a liquid not only dulls their signature fresh dark green colour, but also makes them limp. I would not have discovered the wonders of curry pata, had our family not moved to Bangalore.

With our move to the cantonment city, not only did our eyes open to the British military legacy, but our kitchen became witness to the diversity of food in the southern states of India. The south was more than “Madras”, there was no language like “kannad”, and there were so many delicious dishes to try out.

The Gits instant idli packets of Bombay were never touched again, and a legit wet dosa grinder complete with a granite stone, took a place of pride in the kitchen. Overnight idlis were transformed from rock hard lumps to light, fluffy clouds.

Sambhar changed from a mutant dal to a spicy, tangy delectable stew with lots of tamarind juice and at times floating drumsticks. We were introduced to rasam, lemon rice, tomato chutney, vatha kulambu and my all time favourite thayir sadam!

Curd rice - not just yogurt mixed with rice, but rice which sits in warm milk and slowly ferments with the help of sour curd. My mother would serve this dish with the trademark curry pata and salem gundu (literally ‘fat’ chilly) tadka, alongside the requisite fried appalams. Seeing the crisp and crunchy curry leaves sit in peace on top of the creamy white and salty curd-rice, was love at first sight, and I have been a loyal fan of this lovely leaf ever since.

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