A recent trip to Dual Specialty Store (a spice, herb, and tea wonderland) in the East Village left my shopping bag full of fresh curry leaves. Similarly shaped to bay leaves, curry leaves grow on trees native to southern India and Sri Lanka, and are used extensively in curries, soups, and chutneys. But don't let the name deceive you — curry leaves have nothing at all to do with curry powder. In fact, there's basically nothing quite like them.
I remember the first time I tasted the bold, lemony flavor, and I've been hooked ever since. But it's their aroma that always draws me in — it's something like buttery popcorn meets citrus rind.
I wanted to fry them right away. Skye Gyngell's book "My Favorite Things" has a beautiful vegetarian recipe, which I loosely followed. It draws inspiration from various regions, and gives curry leaves the prominent role. And the best part: you can eat them whole.
Kabocha Squash and Tomato Curry with Lime and Coconut Milk
1 medium kabocha squash (or butternut)
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green chile, chopped (seeds left in)
15-20 curry leaves
2 tsp. black mustard seeds
2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. coriander seeds
2 tbsp. turbinado sugar
2 tbsp. fish sauce (optional)
Juice of 3 limes
1 12-oz. can of peeled plum tomatoes
1 cup of coconut milk
In a small pan, dry roast the black mustard, fennel, and coriander seeds until fragrant and begin to pop. Remove from heat and grind with a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
Cut the squash in half, and scoop out the seeds. Carefully slice off the skin and cut the flesh into 2-inch wedges. Set aside.
Place a large soup pot over medium heat and add oil. When the oil is hot, add the red onion and some salt. Cook until tender and translucent, adding more oil if necessary. Add garlic, chile, and curry leaves. After about 5 minutes, add the ground spice mixture and cook for a few more minutes.
Add squash and stir, to cover with the base mixture. Cook for about 10 minutes. Add the sugar, fish sauce (if you're using it), lime juice, and a little water if things are looking dry. At this point, feel free to adjust the flavor so that there's a good balance of sweet, spicy, and sour.
Add the tomatoes, gently crushing them with your hand right into the pot (just don't let one explode all over your shirt, like I did). I added some of the juice from the can, as well. Give the whole thing a good stir, and cover partially with a lid. Cook for another 20 minutes or so. Be sure to stir periodically.
Once the squash is tender to a fork's touch, add the coconut milk and stir. Cook for a final 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, and serve in bowls.
Although not necessary, I found the addition of blanched spinach to be a nice addition right on top of the curry. Tuscan kale or chard good also be used. Serve with spiced basmati rice or warm bread.
Wine pairing suggestion: There are a lot of flavors meshed together here, but none are overly aggressive. Even though this dish is all veggie, I'd pass on white wine and opt for a southern French red blend, like the organic Domaine de la Patience Nemausa, from Costières de Nimes. This wine is fruity without being very sweet and has lovely floral notes, with a stemmy finish.