The other day I was in Atwater Village driving past a large Indian grocery store called India Sweets and Spices. I decided to do a very sensible thing: I parked my car and went inside. In the front, there’s an actual restaurant where you get food from a counter and the food looked pretty good. Then, behind all that, is a large supermarket-sized store with aisles and aisles of food from India. In my mind, I was seeking out something very specific, something that I first encountered in Elberton, Georgia when I cooked with my friend Shirin’s Pakistani family; it’s also something I re-encountered in Georgia, a few years later, when I cooked with Cardamom Hill’s Asha Gomez for my cookbook. I’m talking about curry leaves.
Sure enough, in the refrigerated section, I found them. A bargain at $0.99 for each packet.
As Asha says in my book, “Curry leaves and curry powder have nothing in common. In India, we don’t have curry powder. It doesn’t exist.”
The specific fragrance that emerges when you heat oil (Asha prefers a combination of coconut oil and olive oil) and then drag your fingers down the stem, allowing the leaves to fall into the hot fat, is one of the most intoxicating you will encounter. Your kitchen starts to spin around like the house in “The Wizard of Oz” and before you know it you’ve landed in India.
The flavored oil then serves to perfume whatever it is you’re cooking with that very distinct, incredibly bewitching taste. For dinner on Saturday, I decided to recreate the three dishes Asha taught me for my book. The first, Beef Ularthiyathu, is–according to Asha–the Indian version of Beef Bourguignon. It’s beef braised with garlic, ginger, chiles, tomato, and a bevy of spices including cayenne, coriander, garam masala and tumeric.
The beef braises in its own liquid (with a little help from the tomatoes) and an hour or so later, you have this:
It’s an intensely flavorful stew that owes a great debt to the curry leaves that permeate each bite. Check out the recipe below.
Meanwhile, the curry leaves show up in the Yogurt Rice which is used to sop up the sauce. Once again, you flavor fat with the leaves and, here, also a tablespoon of mustard seeds:
Then you pour in yogurt, turn off the heat, and add a lot of cooked basmati rice:
This does for rice what Quentin Tarantino did for John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”: it brings it back to life.
Finally, curry leaves even transform peas and carrots from the humdrum to the sublime in a dish Asha taught me called Thoren. Once again (you probably have this memorized at this point) flavor the fat with curry leaves and some mustard seeds:
Then you add chopped string beans and carrots and a mixture of garlic, unsweetened shredded coconut (from the refrigerated section of the Indian grocery), cumin seeds and a finger chili. The resulting mixture has more pizazz than Pia Zadora (sorry, I’m running out of ways to rave):
The finished plate is a square meal that’s anything but square:
Curry leaves really are a transformative ingredient, the kind of thing that’ll make make anything taste more interesting if you know how to use them. For example, next time you make mashed potatoes, heat up some butter, drop in the curry leaves and mustard seeds and pour that into the mashed potato mixture. Or add a few to the butter for scrambled eggs (my friend David Prior found this idea disgusting when I made a curry leaf omelet this weekend, but we’re not here to be judgmental, are we?).
The next time you pass an Indian grocery, do yourself a favor and buy yourself a packet of curry leaves. The Indian food you make at home will never taste better.
Recipe: Beef Ularthiyathu
Summary: Asha Gomez’s take on Beef Bourguignon from “Secrets of the Best Chefs.”
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil, plus 2 more tablespoons for later
- 2 stems fresh curry leaves
- 1 red onion, sliced along the length of the onion
- Kosher salt
- 1 thick 2-inch-long piece of ginger, peeled and grated (1/4 to 1/2 cup grated ginger)
- 6 cloves garlic
- 3 dried red chilies
- 1/2 large red tomato, sliced into wedges
- 1 heaping teaspoon mild cayenne pepper
- 2 heaping teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 heaping teaspoon garam masala
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 3 pounds top round beef (or stewing beef), cut into 1-inch cubes, rinsed and patted dry
- Place both oils in a large skillet (don’t use nonstick) and turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, stems the curry leaves right into the oil and add the stems too. Cook (they should sizzle) until they start to brown, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook until the onions soften, 2 to 3 more minutes. Then add the ginger, garlic, dried red chilies, and tomato. Season again and stir, then add the cayenne, coriander, garam masala, and turmeric. Taste and adjust; you may want to add more cayenne for color and heat. Cook for another 2 minutes, just until the tomato begins to release its juices.
- Add the beef and turn up the heat. Stir until the beef is well coated and the liquid comes to a boil. Cover the pan, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.
- At this point, check the pan and the beef. If it’s very liquidy in there, take the lid off and continue simmering until the sauce thickens. Taste the beef for tenderness; if it’s not tender yet, keep cooking it. With the lid off, the flavors will concentrate; when you’re at a point where the beef is tender and the sauce is concentrated and delicious, scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pan and stir in the final 2 tablespoons of coconut oil.
- Serve immediately. (Or: if not immediately, set the pan aside, and turn it back on the heat when you’re ready to serve it up.)
Preparation time: 20 minute(s)
Cooking time: 1 hour(s) 30 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 4