Iddiyappam (image T. Freuman)
I'm a part-time dietitian married to a schoolteacher, and we've got twin children. In other words, we don't get to take exotic vacations. So, I decided to create a faux getaway by visiting Newark Avenue near Journal Square in Jersey City, a veritable slice of India right in my own backyard. Granted, it’s not the most picturesque of neighborhoods. But it boasts a half dozen “cash and carry” markets where the offering of vegetables, herbs, beans and pantry items capture the imagination… and inspire me to cook dishes that make my house smell wholly unfamiliar. The perfect cure for cabin fever.
I scored a bag full of goodies to fuel a week’s worth of cooking experiments, but the fresh bag of curry leaves I bought for a mere $0.50 turned out to be the magic ingredient I needed to transform a pantry of mundane, workaday foods into Iddiyappam: a bright, unusual accompaniment to the aromatic lentil dal (stew) my husband was working on for dinner.
Curry leaves bear no relation to the spice we know as curry powder. (In fact, curry powder isn’t actually a spice so much as a blend of multiple spices that vary by brand.) Curry leaves are narrow, edible, green leaves grown on (what else?) curry trees–also known as Kari trees– and are sold fresh on the branch. They smell nothing like curry the spice, nor do they taste anything like curry the spice. To me, they smell a little bit nutty, but others describe the aroma as bell-pepperish or citrusy. To unlock their distinctive flavor, you just fry them in some oil; this process unlocks their alchemistic ability to transform a dish beyond the mere sum of its parts. (If you’ve ever fried sage leaves, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here.) I don’t recommend leaving them out of a dish that calls for them.
If you are lucky enough to live near an Indian market–or a specialty grocery that carries fresh curry leaves (you may seem them sold as “meetha neem” or “kadhi patta”)–buy them. Alternatively, if you love Indian food and live in a temperate climate– California comes to mind– why not consider planting yourself a curry leaf plant? The species name is Murraya Koenigii, and you can order one online from a variety of sources. According to Carol Selva Rajah, the Sydney-based co-author of The Food of India (Murdoch Books, 2002), her outdoor curry plants have grown to over six feet tall (!) in sunny Sydney. (However, you can grow more modestly-sized plants potted indoors). Just think of all the great produce you could barter with your neighbors with that many curry leaves! Note that dried leaves have nowhere near the flavor or aroma as fresh leaves, so if you find some fresh ones, it’s best to freeze any extras for a rainy day and thaw them when needed.
So once you’ve scored yourself some leaves, you can try frying them in a bit of oil before starting your favorite curry recipe (especially fish) and then proceed as usual; they’ll add a surprising bit of depth and complexity. You can use them as a garnish to mulligatawny (or any lentil) soup, as Carol suggests. Or you can use them to try out the Iddiyapam recipe that brightened up my dreary weekend; it’s a Southern Indian rice noodle based dish that makes an interesting substitute for plain old rice alongside a more strongly-flavored sauce or stew. With Carol’s permission, I offer you her recipe–adapted only to reduce the oil slightly for my calorie-conscious readers. (I assure you, it’s no worse for it.) I recommend getting a big pot of water boiling at the outset and cooking the eggs while the rice noodles are busy soaking. After 10 minutes, scoop the eggs out with a slotted spoon and keep the boiling water going for the rice noodles.
Adapted ever so slightly and reprinted with permission from Carol Selva Rajah
- 8 oz rice vermicelli (look for these in the Asian section of any supermarket)
- 2 TBSP oil
- 1/3 cup cashew nuts
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 10 curry leaves
- 2 carrots, grated
- 2 leeks, finely shredded
- 1 red pepper, diced
- 2 TBSP ketchup
- 1 TBSP soy sauce (to make it gluten-free, use wheat-free Tamari sauce instead)
- 1 tsp salt
- Soak the rice vermicelli in cold water for 30 minutes
- Meanwhile, get a pot of water boiling and cook the eggs for 10 minutes to hard boil, the remove with a slotted spoon and cool in cold water. When cold, peel them and cut into wedges.
- Drain vermicelli and put them in the pot of boiling water. Remove from the heat and leave in the pan for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water.
- Heat 1 TBSP oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the cashews until golden. (Note: don’t be tempted to toast them without oil to save calories; frying them in oil results in a ridiculously delicious effect)
- Remove cashews from pan, add the onion to pan, fry until dark golden, then remove from pan and set aside.
- Heat the remaining 1 TBSP oil in the frying pan and briefly fry the curry leaves. Add the carrot, leeks and red pepper and stir for 1 minute. Add the ketchup, soy sauce/tamari , salt and vermicelli, stirring constantly to prevent the noodles from sticking to pan.
- Serve on a platter and garnish with the peas, cashews, fried onion and egg slices.