Saturday, October 27, 2012

vegan mofo :: cooking with curry leaves

A delicious, sweet-potato based curry. I used toasted curry leaves as a flavor base.
Whenever I see fresh curry leaves at my local produce market, as I did last week, I do a little happy dance. Since they are not always available, I take it as a sign from the kitchen gods that it's time to put together my favorite South Indian veggie curry – which honestly changes a bit each time I make it. This aligns perfectly with my Back to Basics Vegan MoFo theme; recipes are not rigid rules to follow – they are simply culinary lighthouses that help us find our way. 

First, let's get one thing straight: curry leaves and curry powder are two completely different foodstuffs, like apples and oranges. Curry leaves have a smoky-sour taste, ever-so-faintly reminiscent of limes. It's commonly used in Southern Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine. I like to use it contrasted against sweeter ingredients like sweet potatoes and onions. The "curry" most of us knows is a powder blend of spices like turmeric, garam masala, etc. There are Indian, Thai and Caribbean versions – all of which are different. A few curry powders may contain ground-up curry leaves, but most do not. 

$1.99 is not bad for urban curry leaves, all things considered.
I'm no Indian cooking expert, but I have learned over years of trial and error that pre-roasting spices and flavoring heated oils with your own spice blends infuses the dish with a much greater depth of flavor than just throwing everything into the pot at once. You simply place the spices/seeds/leaves in a hot pan and heat them for a few minutes with oil. That's what I usually do with curry leaves.

Curry leaves look so much prettier when freed from their Styrofoam containers.
Unpackaged, curry leaves look somewhat illicit, sort of like the coca leaves Peruvians use to make tea [Yes, some people use coca leaves to make cocaine, but coca leaves are to cocaine like poppy seeds, of bagel fame, are to opium].

Freeze your assets.
Did you know you can actually freeze curry leaves? They keep forever [well, more like 6 months] in a tightly sealed baggy. You can just pluck out a few leaves as you need them.

South-Indian Inspired Mixed Vegetable Curry – naturally vegan 

I made this curry earlier in the week. My my dear amiga Violet came over for dinner and we gobbled it up. Don't be afraid to use other vegetables than the ones I've listed. But if you can't use the sweet potato, I strongly suggest substituting at least one sweet vegetable, like pumpkin, carrot or even a not-quite-ripe plantain, to highlight the curry leaves' subtle signature pucker.

South-Indian Inspired Mixed Vegetable Curry
  • 1 1/2 T oil [eg, canola, coconut, olive]
  • 1/4 tsp chili pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp black or brown mustard seeds
  • 10 curry leaves
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2 small poblano peppers [Substitute any mild-to-medium hot pepper]
  • 1 can coconut milk [Light is fine]
  • 1 cup mushrooms, chopped
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 medium sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 medium zucchini, diced

Serves 6

Heat oil in a large high-sided pan over medium. Toss in the chili flakes and mustard seeds and cook until the seeds start to pop, stirring occasionally. Add the curry leaves, and stir. Let them cook for about 3 minutes, then add the onion.

Once the onion is soft [about 5 more minutes], sprinkle in the coriander, garam masala and turmeric and stir to coat. Sprinkle with salt and cook a few minutes longer. What you are doing here is building layers of flavor, allowing the various ingredients to meld and to infused the oil.

Add peppers and cook 5 more minutes, adding a spoon or two of water if the mixture starts to get dry. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until all veggies are soft.

Serve over brown basmati or jasmine rice, or with chapatti. You can also eat this plain – it's the consistency of a heart stew. It's one of those dishes that gets even better if it sits in the 'fridge overnight.

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Mattheworbit said...

Ahh! Now I can finally comment again!
Thanks for this - we have a giant curry plant in the garden that I don't really understand what to do with, but boy, it has a strong scent.! We have cheap, giant sweet potatoes at the moment so this looks like a great idea

urban vegan said...

Great! Can't wait to see what you come up with. You can really toss most any veggie you like in.

Amey said...

oh yeah!!! Curry leaves are probably my #1 favorite spice. Or at least, they are definitely in the top 10. I love them so much. Whenever I eat something with curry leaves, they just give the dish a whole different level of YUM. It's so great when I'm in India and there are curry leaves everywhere. I really want to try growing a curry bush. I think it could probably be done out here in California.