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Madhur Jaffrey Told Me to Use My Curry Leaves, Pronto

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It's true: Madhur Jaffrey really did come into the office and tell me that.

Though I had read online that fresh curry leaves can be frozen—and had found a tip on our Hotline for easily drying them in the microwave—the most famous writer of Indian cookbooks advised me against it, explaining that the leaves lose their almost unbelievable fragrance and potency when their fresh state is altered.

I had little choice but to follow Jaffrey's commandment.

So with 10 days (this is according to the people at Kalustyan's who had sold them to me) to use up approximately 35 fresh curry leaves, I went to work:

  • First, I fulfilled the curry leaves' destiny (the very reason I had purchased them) by making "Stir-Fried Eggplant Cooked in a Tamil Nadu Style" from Jaffrey's new book Vegetarian India.

    In this recipe, diced eggplant is flavored two ways: with a homemade spice mix made of ground chana dal, coriander seeds, and dried red chilies, and second, from a stir-fry of mustard seeds, crushed curry leaves (which sputter, shrivel, and burnish dramatically in the hot oil), and diced onion.

    Eight curry leaves down, approximately twenty-eight to go.

  • The next night, I made the recipe that introduced me to curry leaves in the first place: Julie Sahni's Currived Avocado. This dish calls for fresh or dried curry leaves in the master curry powder mix (along with coriander seeds, dried red chilies, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, and turmeric powder), as well as in the actual dish.

    Luckily, I'm a hoarder of shelf-stable foods and had held onto the master spice mix (in a small plastic container in my refrigerator) for over a year—and for exactly this purpose! Once you have the master spice mix, all you have to do is roughly chop an avocado with lime juice, cilantro, and curry leaves; heat mustards seeds, garlic, and onion in a frying pan; add the curry powder and hot green chilies; heat-through the avocado mixture; and take it off the heat.

    With that, I had about twenty curry leaves left. 

  • For dinner the day after, I returned to another Jaffrey recipe, this time her Stir-Fried Cabbage with Fennel Seeds. The recipe doesn't call for curry powder, but since I had no fennel seeds and was going to use brown mustard seeds in their place, I figured the leaves would fit into the flavor profile. I added eight crushed leaves to the hot oil along with the other spices. I had no cumin seeds, so I used ground cumin instead. And with no garam masala [actually, I did have it—but it somehow ended up in the freezer (?!) and I didn't find it until the next day], I added hot curry powder, cardamom, and cinnamon in its stead.

    Even with all my tweaks and "interpretations," the recipe was still pretty Genius. Twelve more curry leaves to go!

  • To make the stir-fried cabbage, I had invested in a nine-pound (seriously, I weighed it!), three-dollar head of green cabbage at the market. Up to my ears in shredded cabbage, I turned to Bon Appétit's Cabbage and Chickpeas with Mustard Seeds and Yogurt. (In case you can't tell, I'm also working through a big jar of mustard seeds.)

    Again, this recipe didn't call for curry leaves, but I added about four when I stir-fried the shallots and mustard seeds, before adding the cabbage. You might think this dish is similar to Jaffrey's, but the cabbage cooks for much longer, simmering in water (or vegetable stock), until it's soft and wiggly. Plus, adding white wine vinegar (I used red... oops!) adds a much sharper note. I also added Parmesan, a weird but good and salty decision. The next day, I reheated the cabbage in a frying pan with a fried egg.

    Eight more curry leaves still looking for a purpose.


  • At that point, I was pretty tired of cabbage and running low on mustard seeds. I wanted to make something really wacky with my last allotment, so I turned to dessert.

    Indiaphile's Grapefruit Curry Leaf Shortbread was one of the only cookie recipes I could find that called for curry leaves in the ingredient list. It's a standard shortbread recipe, but the butter and sugar are mixed with 1 tablespoon of minced fresh curry leaves (my final eight curry leaves gave me 1 scant tablespoon) and 1 tablespoon of citrus zest. I used coconut palm sugar instead of confectioner's sugar, and added chopped salted peanuts, cardamom, and a sprinkling of raw sugar. The cookies were subtly spicy, super fragrant, and a huge hit at the office. 

    They had a surprising sesame flavor (perhaps from the combination of curry and peanut?) and I'd even consider upping the amount of fresh curry leaves for something more powerful. 

That was it! I had used up all of my curry leaves (I try to make Madhur proud, you know?), eaten a lot of cabbage, and fed the Food52 staff spicy cookies.

So now I can safely say I'm ready for my next bag.

Curry Leaf Shortbread with Peanuts and Grapefruit

Makes about 2 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup coconut palm sugar (feel free to substitute another kind of sugar in its place)
1 tablespoon grapefruit zest (from 1 large grapefruit)
1 tablespoon minced fresh curry leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 handfuls roughly chopped salted peanuts
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

What would you have done with so many curry leaves? Tell me in the comments! 

Tags: Spice, Tips & Techniques, Advice, Ingredients