Since World Curry Tour 09 began, I’ve been reading much about curry and its origins. I thought I had a handle on the concept: saucy, maybe spicy, vegetables served with rice or bread. Then I pulled out Madhur Jaffery’s World Vegetarian.
She is my kind of lady. Her writing style is so whimsical and friendly. And her instructions are very easy to follow. I want to hang out with her and talk about food and theater and …I digress.
So, I was reading the index, looking for a curry to make, and came across this interesting ingredient: curry leaves. Now wait a second. What in the name of the Late Great Beatrice Arthur are curry leaves?
I THOUGHT CURRY WAS SPICY SAUCY VEGETABLES WITH RICE OR BREAD! Or that blasted yellow powder I’ve been told to eschew by every Indian cook/writer in the universe. All of a sudden curry is its own thing?
“Leigh,” Madhur said, “relax. Read the glossary of my book and all will be explained.”
I opened the book and read, “[Curry leaves are] aromatic leaves used fresh in much of Indian and some Southeast Asian cookery....You can use the dried leaf if fresh is unavailable, though the aroma is very limited. Store curry leaves flat in a plastic bag....They may also be frozen....”
“Yes, Madhur, but what are they? What do they taste like? Are they just like any other herb? Or do they ‘make’ curry curry? Madhur?”
It’s hard to describe a unique flavor, but I needed some perspective. To the InterWebMachine! Asia Food Glossary says curry leaves “are as important to Asian food as bay leaves are to European food.” Ooh, that helps.
Since our last curry stop, I’ve been compiling a list of ingredients to pick up at the Indian market: mostly things I’d run out of, but also things a Western cook wouldn’t think of like asefetida (a fennel-like powder that stinks going in the pan but adds good flavor and digestive powers) and, now, curry leaves. Off to market!
Side note: I could write a whole post about how the smell of asafetida followed me around the day I bought it. It’s pretty rank. Store it in a hermetically sealed container if you have one lying around.
Home with my quarry, and a few delicious dates courtesy of the shopkeeper, I needed a recipe to go with my haul. Back to the “curry leaf” entry in the index! South Indian Cabbage called out to me.
Cabbage is an underappreciated vegetable in my kitchen. Except for sauerkraut and coleslaw, I never know what to do with it. At the beginning of the cabbage section, Madhur writes about the origins of vegetable and its varietals.
Here’s where I fell a little bit more in love (with Ms. Jaffrey and cabbage): “Cabbage is rich in cancer-preventative magic and vitamin C.” Sigh.
South Indian Cabbage tastes like magic too. I can’t begin to describe the flavors; curry leaves, fenugreek, asafetida are all new tastes for me. It kind of reminded me of the inside of a spring roll, but that’s the closest I can come.
This recipe also uses a teaspoon of urad dal (a black, split, lentil-like bean) as spice. You can use yellow split peas as a substitute. To go with the cabbage, I cooked up a pot of urad dal along with some basmati rice. It’s a delicious story for another day.
The cabbage dish cooks up fast, so you can easily make it for a weeknight side dish. It’s also delicious and distinctive enough to wow guests at a dinner party or pot luck.
You’ll want to get all your chopping and measuring done before you start cooking. If you’re impatient, like me, this is crucial information to have. Start any legume/rice accompaniment before the prep. Once you start cooking, time goes by in a flash.
This is one of the healthiest dishes I’ve ever made. I cut the recommended oil quantity by more than half, and it still cooked up easily and tasted great.
If you’re not careful, this magical cabbage will disappear before your eyes. I would have eaten the entire pan in one sitting if I wasn’t a paragon of restraint. Also, Madhur probably wouldn’t approve of a lady shoveling cabbage in her face straight from the skillet with a serving spoon.
Or maybe she would. She is my kind of lady.
South Indian Cabbage
From World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey
Yields 3 to 4 servings
1 tbsp peanut or canola oil (I used canola)
1 generous pinch of asafetida
1 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal (black split lentils), chana dal (yellow lentils), or yellow split peas
5 to 6 whole fenugreek seeds
2 to 3 dried hot red chilies
10 fresh (or dried) curry leaves (fresh basil leaves work too)
1 3/4 lb green cabbage, shredded
1 tsp salt
1) Prep is super vital, since this dish comes together fast. Measure and shred every ingredient before you turn the burners on.
2) In a large skillet or wok, heat oil over medium-high heat.
3) Once the oil is very hot, add the asafetida. Immediately - like, a second later - add mustard seeds and urad dal. Stir.
4) Once the mustard seeds start popping, add fenugreek seeds and chilies. Stir. Cook the mixture until the dal turns reddish and chilies get a little darker.
5) Add curry leaves. Then add cabbage. Stir a couple of times so everything is thoroughly mixed.
6) Add salt. Stir. Cook about 60 seconds.
7) Cover. Drop heat to low. Cook until cabbage is wilted, about 6 or 8 minutes. If you need to, add a little water to keep it from scorching.
8) When time is up, take the lid off. If you like, add more salt. Stir. Cook another minute or 2. Serve.
Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
88.5 calories, 4.86g fat, $.37 (3 servings)
66.4 calories, 3.6g fat, $.28 (4 servings)
1 tbsp canola oil: 120 calories, 14g fat, $0.08
1 generous pinch of asafetida: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp whole brown mustard seeds: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp urad dal (black split lentils): 12 calories, .08g fat, $.02
5 to 6 whole fenugreek seeds: negligible calories and fat, $.02
2 to 3 dried hot red chilies: negligible calories and fat, $.02
10 dried curry leaves: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 3/4 lb green cabbage: 133.5 calories, .5g fat, $.89
1 tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $.02
Totals: 265.5 calories, 14.58g fat, $1.11
Per serving: 88.5 calories, 4.86g fat, $.37 (3 servings)
66.4 calories, 3.6g fat, $.28 (4 servings)