Some flavours are so haunting they are hard to forget.
Recently, while having lunch at a Thai restaurant in Golden Mile Complex, I dig into a pot of green curry and what I taste makes me do a double take.
In that aromatic dish is something I have never tasted before, a cross between a tart green mango and young ginger.
So I dig in again and find thin strips of what looks like ginger. The server says it is called krachai in Thai, or finger root. I find it at the supermarket upstairs and the name is apt. The herb looks like long, tapering fingers fanning out from a base.
MAKE IT YOURSELF: SPICY CORNBREAD
80g melted butter, plus more for greasing tin
3 large red chillies
4-5 sprigs curry leaves, 6 to 7g
100g cooked corn kernels
150g finely ground cornmeal
1 Tbs sugar
1/4 tsp salt
11/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1. Preheat the oven to 220 deg C. Generously grease a 20x20cm baking tin.
2. Rinse the chillies and curry leaves under running water, pat very dry with paper towels. Slice the chillies lengthwise and remove the seeds. Slice them finely crosswise. Pick the leaves off the curry leaf stems and stack them. Using a pair of kitchen scissors, snip them thinly crosswise. Mix the chillies and curry leaves in a bowl with the corn kernels. Set aside.
3. Mix the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, double-acting baking powder and baking soda in a large mixing bowl with a fork.
4. Shake the buttermilk well before pouring into a jug. Add the eggs and 80g melted butter and whisk with a fork until all three ingredients are incorporated.
5. Mix the corn kernel mixture with the flour and cornmeal with a fork. Make a well in the centre and pour in the buttermilk mixture. Mix well with a metal spoon, taking care not to overmix. The batter is ready when you do not see streaks of flour.
6. Scrape the batter into the baking tin with a spatula.
Use the spatula to push the batter into the corners and get it into the oven quickly.
7. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until the cornbread is golden brown on top and has pulled away from the sides of the tin.
8. Remove from the oven and sit the baking tin on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove the cornbread from the tin and let cool on a rack for about an hour before serving.
Serves six to eight
I have not figured out what to make with it yet, but there are other aromatic Asian herbs I cannot get enough of.
When I was a child, I refused to eat fresh coriander and would pick it out of congee or steamed fish. Now, I love its freshness and the pep it adds to everything I throw it on. I even make a pesto out of it, with green chillies and cashews.
Laksa leaves have a haunting flavour too and add oomph to a dish. I also like how the Vietnamese use it in salads. It is a completely different way of enjoying the herb.
Another punchy flavour I like comes from curry leaves. It is such a sharp, precise flavour. Just one whiff makes me hungry for curry. Its sharpness also cuts through the richness of salted egg yolk sauce.
But I figure there must be other ways to use it rather than the same-old, same-old. So a couple of weeks ago, I started experimenting.
I am going through a baking phase right now and decide to use it in cornbread.
Usually, I add chopped scallions or pickled jalapenos to the batter but, as I discover, curry leaves are a better addition.
While doing the washing up, its scent fills the kitchen and I cannot wait to cut a big slice.
The thing is, it is better to wait to have the cornbread warm rather than hot.
Because there is more cornmeal than flour in the bread, it is a little crumbly right out of the oven.
Otherwise, it is the easiest thing to make.
This quick bread involves three lots of ingredients which are just stirred together, dumped into a pan, and baked.
The first lot comprises curry leaves snipped into little pieces, seeded and sliced red chillies and corn kernels. They can be sliced off a cooked cob, but I like the ease of using corn kernels that come in tetrapaks. The kernels are always juicy.
Mix the three ingredients together and set them aside.
Then, get the dry ingredients ready and this is as easy as mixing together finely ground cornmeal (I use the Bob's Red Mill brand) with flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda.
The third lot of ingredients is wet.
Buttermilk is one of them. It used to be the tangy liquid left over from churning cream into butter. Now, a bacterial culture is added to low-fat milk to make commercial buttermilk, which larger supermarkets here carry.
It is essential to the recipe because it makes for a tender crumb. Use leftovers in pancakes and scones. Remember to shake the carton well before pouring it out.
The other wet ingredients are eggs and melted butter, which get whisked together with a fork with the buttermilk.
Mix the vegetables and herbs with the dry ingredients, then add the liquid and stir together quickly.
The tangy buttermilk activates the baking soda and starts providing the lift you want in the bread. So there cannot be any delays in getting the batter into the pan and the pan into the rather hot oven.
And in just 20 minutes, the bread is ready.
If I have any leftovers, I store them in the fridge and toast them before eating. A slick of salted butter is great with the cornbread, as is cream cheese.
However, my favourite way to eat it is as is.
What better way to enjoy the scent of curry leaves?