Monday, May 11, 2009

Currying Flavour

English is a funny language.  Not only does it break all of its own rules, it also has multiple meanings for the same word.  Take, for example, the word "curry".  As a verb, curry can mean: to groom a horse, to beat or thrash, to attempt to ingratiate through flattery and fawning, or to rebuke or criticize. As a noun, curry is a blend of spices (curry powder or what is called a masala here), a dish made with that blend, or an entirely different herb - the curry leaf (Murraya koenigii). There is also a "curry plant" (Helichrysum italicum) that smells like the aforementioned spice mix but that is not edible!

Curry Leaf, or karivepallai, is an integral part of South Indian cuisine, particularly to the food of Kerala, but does not taste anything like curry powder.  There are very few dishes made here that do not incorporate the curry leaf, luckily we all love them! Something magical happens when a fresh curry leaf hits hot oil.  The oil sputters from the moisture in the leaf and then the leaf gives off a fabulous aroma and gets crisp and more-ish. Not surprisingly then, the main way that curry leaves are used is in the "tempering" process.  Tempering is a technique to finish many of the drier "curries", those that don't have a lot of sauce.  Near the end of the cooking a mix of vegetables or meat, a separate kadai (little wok or frying pan) is heated and oil is added to it.  In Kerala is is usually coconut oil.  When the oil is very hot, black mustard seeds are added.  When the seeds start to pop like popcorn, dried red chilies are tossed in and quickly fried in the oil to change colour.  Then the leaves are pulled off of a few curry sprigs and added to the oil.  The whole spluttering thing is tossed together and then the heat is turned off. All of this takes maybe 5 minutes.  The resulting spiced oil is poured over the finished dish.  A dish that has not been tempered is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.  Sometimes a teaspoon of methi seeds, cumin seeds or urad dal are added to the tempering to contribute to the overall flavour, texture and healthiness of the dish.

Curry leaves are fairly fibrous and so are not eaten fresh off the stalk. Because Keralan cuisine uses a lot of ground fresh coconut, the grinding process is another good time to add curry leaves.  Pop the leaves of a few sprigs into the mixie (see Rob's post about majesty of the mixie here) with some grated fresh coconut and blend away.  Sometimes this blended concoction is added to a dish that is cooking, other times it is the base for a coconut chutney.  

When making a wetter curry, with what they call "gravy" here, whole curry leaves can be added early on in the cooking process, sort of like bay leaves.  The liquid in the dish and the longer cooking time makes the leaf more palatable and digestible. It is a personal preference whether you eat the curry leaves in the final dish or whether you push them to the side of your plate as most people do with the whole dried red chilies.

In Vancouver we are lucky enough to have several stores that carry fresh curry leaves (our favourite is Asia Market on Hastings Street near Main but there are several grocery stores in Little India that also carry the leaves). Curry leaves don't have a long life once picked - a few days in the fridge, maybe a week, is about all they can handle.  You can freeze or dry the leaves but the dried leaves, like dried parsley, really lack the bright flavour and essence of the leaf, frozen is preferably if you really can't get fresh.  In the markets here in Cochin, vendors often throw a handful of curry leaves into your bag free of charge. But many people here have curry trees in their gardens and can pick the leaves fresh as needed.  Since Murraya koenigii is a tropical plant, I'm looking into the possibility of growing a curry leaf tree as a houseplant when we get home. How cool would that be?

But back to the English language. Don't even get me started on the many definitions of "temper" or 'tempering"! As a former ESL teacher, I feel for any one who needs to learn English as a second language; it can be tricky enough for native speakers to use correctly!  Spelling (anyone familiar with ghoti?)!  Grammar! Idiom! Of course, it is also a joy.  Its flexibility allows for playful dialogue that apparently some languages cannot accommodate.  So what I am trying to say is that I don't really mean to curry, rather to curry favour with our readers out in the blogsphere and remind them, all currying aside, that voting for the Spice of Life on the Blogger Awards page only takes a minute of their time...


Murray A said...

Did you know CondeNast Traveler is doing a report on:
How to try India's street food risk-free:

YOU guys could have written it!

Anonymous said...

Hey guys!!
First off sorry that this is my first comment, I promise I have been following your blog and also sharing it with my friends. Your blog and trip are wonderfull I am proud to be related to you guys. I can't wait witness your awesome Indian food chops when you get back. We are doing well, Allison is due with #2 June 11 and we should be done with our house by the end of the summer (thank god, and you guys have GOT to come and stay with us for a change). Anyhoo, keep it up and drop us a line if you get a chance!
Jeremy King
PS I bet the one thing you are missing there is cured pork products! These are my current obsession which I caught from you, Rob, on our last visit.

Rob Bailey said...

Thanks for the comments! Murray, we read the article and laughed out loud! The writer was advocating a food chain that is actually pretty bad. It's like saying "when you go to the USA, you simply must try the chili burger at Denny's" He kind of missed the point. Fun read, though!
Jeremy! Such nice things to say. We're excited about the arrival of #2 as well, and as the proud owners of two ourselves, we can attest to how interesting your life is going to get. We absolutely want to come to Seattle this summer to visit when your new house is ready. We all look forward to making the pilgrimmage to Salumi, wherupon I shall dutifully worship at the altar of soprasetta. We're also pretty jazzed because we got word that our Large Black Pig was born yesterday. It's a heritage breed that our friends on Vancouver Island raise, and the pigs get to be 250 pounds plus! Bacon and salami for days this fall. Also, I got confirmation that I'm going on a moose hunt this fall. With any luck, we won't have a bit of factory meat in the house from now on!