Street-side tiffin

Street-side tiffin

By
Anjum Anand
Contains
13 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849495639
Photographer
Martin Poole

Curry leaves

These lovely, droopy herb leaves – each with a sharp point and a vibrant, glossy green coating – rival coriander in India’s food affections. Curry leaves are an essential ingredient and form part of the “Holy Trinity” of South Indian flavours, along with mustard seeds and coconut. Many people who live on the western coast will grow curry leaves in the garden, and pick stems off as needed. Contrary to their name, they don’t smell of curry, but have a lovely, clear, identifiable aroma of their own.

You really don’t need a reason to cook with these lovely leaves other than their sublime flavour but, according to ancient Indian medics, the herbs are a real powerhouse of health. They are believed to be anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial as well as being full of minerals and vitamins so – a bit like turmeric – they are a vital ingredient to include in the diet as often as possible. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, curry leaves are believed to relieve congestion, detoxify the liver, stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels (so great for diabetics), be helpful for anaemia as their folic acid helps absorb iron, and be good for digestion and cholesterol levels. My father-in-law eats two or three curry leaves on an empty stomach with a couple of black peppercorns and a date every morning, as part of his health regime… his vitamins, so to speak!

On a cosmetic note, curry leaves are thought to be really good for bad skin and dry, damaged or limp hair: you blend a good handful of the fresh leaves, heat them gently with some cosmetic oil, then massage into the skin or hair as necessary.

To get the best out of curry leaves, they only need to be fried in a little oil to release their inherent flavour, then be cooked until lightly crisp. Unfortunately, fresh curry leaves don’t keep for long, so when you buy a batch, wrap what you think you might use (still on their stems) in moist kitchen paper and keep them in the fridge. Dry the rest on baking sheets and then store in an airtight container; they won’t have as much flavour, so use them with a heavier hand, but they will still liven up any dish.

Mustard seeds

Mustard seeds are the tiny dried seeds from the flower of the mustard plant. They come in three colours: brown, black and pale yellow. In India we tend to use the brown seeds most. On first inspection they have little aroma but, once fried, they have a lovely nuttiness and, when ground, a strong mustard pungency emerges.

The seeds are used abundantly around India, famously in the South Indian trinity with dried chillies and curry leaves; or ground and used to make pickles with seasoned vegetables. But perhaps the region most synonymous with mustard is Bengal, where you could be forgiven for thinking it was the national spice. The Bengalis feel about mustard the way Parsis do about eggs: there is no place they don’t belong! This love of mustard makes Bengali food unique and delicious; in fact, I can see where the Brits got their love of mustard…

A word of warning: grinding brown mustard seeds can sometimes make them bitter. Soaking them in water first, then grinding them with green chillies and salt, is believed to remove that possibility, but – to be honest – I find this is also hit-and-miss, so I sometimes add ready-prepared mustard powder to a dish where a fresh mustard seed paste was the traditional ingredient. I also often grind a batch of dry brown mustard seeds and store them in a container to be quickly ground once again later, with other ingredients; for some reason, this tends to help.

Store mustard seeds in an airtight container, away from light, for a year or more. This spice goes with everything!

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