The smell of curry leaves

Stir -fried Chettinad Chicken

It’s been utterly quiet around here lately.  At some point, I just stopped thinking about food all the time. My mind was somewhere else.

Five – no wait! six? –  years ago I made a career choice. I moved away from what I wanted to do when I was a child, because it was not quite how I thought it was going to be, and I could not cope with the differences. Besides, pursuing that career would mean no decent job for a few years at least. I took up another job, a job that was any job but that, because I didn’t want to have to deal with it ever again. It felt too painful.

I still remember the first day at the office. At lunch I sidled out to a small, sad urban park, a world away from the beautiful place I went to cry  just a week before (and there were plenty of tears even before – I do cry easily). I sat on a bench and I cried my soul out. I wanted my life back. It feels as if it has not happened yet.

It is not that I regret my decision: I’m sure it was the right one for me. I regret my illusions. I wish I could still think a beautiful job exists, one that fulfills me and allows me to use all of my skills, and even be relatively sure I’ll have an income next month. I am aware that having a job – even if it is not going to make me famous, or win me a Nobel prize or a olimpic medal – is a huge privilege, and it comes with a huge dignity. Even if that job is not going to change the world. I am lucky even among those who do have a job: my job is safe, easy to find wherever I live, and relatively well paid. It turned out, surprisingly, that I’m also quite good at it, and there are aspects of it that I find interesting. But on that first period I could not avoid the feeling of crushing sadness at being there, doing something that was not quite what I had hoped for when I thought about how I wanted to spend my life. I thought I’d carry on and either get used to it, or find something that I wanted for real, and then work to get it. All that time, I held back. I was wearing a mask at work: secretly, I did not want to be there. I did not want to keep doing that job. I was meant to do something else with my life, something different, and I never allowed my job and my colleagues to get close to me. Sure, I did my work and I did get involved to a degree, but I never gave it a serious chance.

During boring office hours – and we all know they happen – I started to read blogs about my other main passion, food. I thought that would help me to fill fulfilled and somehow happy, while I waited for something to happen, for my dream job to appear. So this is what I’ve been doing in the last few years: food is my passion and I’ve allowed it to take a lot of room in my head. However, I’ve never thought food could turn into a full-time job, not even for a second. I did not want to risk it, because I had already lost my other big passion by trying to make a job out of it.

Years later, and I am pretty sure 99% of the problem is with me, not with the job, this job or any other, for what matters. I am not able to be proud of what I have achieved. Recognizing this has helped me to accept my feelings about my job. I now want  to make choices about my career. I want to stop holding back and punishing myself for not being able to get it all, a dream job and a perfect life.  I have a choice, I have plenty of choices actually, which is great. But my reaction has not been particularly great. I don’t like the person I have become at all: I am passive, I let decisions slide over me. So, this time, since I could, I have decided to shut out everything else and take a decision with all of my soul and brain and senses on it. I have a new career opportunity. Dream one? don’t think so. Will I make myself proud? I already know this is not going to happen. But I want to try. I want to improve, identify what I like and then work out an honorable compromise between reality and expectations.

So this is what has been on my mind for the last month or so. I wanted to give my job a go, and I did it. Now I already feel happier with myself and my life. It is so true that stress is generated when you don’t feel in control. Nothing is set in stone, but I’m slowly starting to live again, finding the time to go for a walk and yes, even thinking about food. I know food is here to stay. It was there before the blogs, before I could even read, and it will be there when technology has changed so much that blogs don’t really make more sense.

At the end of this journey, I want to keep a diary again, and I want it to be focussed on food. I’m going to have less time. But I hope this somehow will push me to use whatever time I have on something I do care about. I’ve always been good with discipline and overload of work.

Spring was here in all its glory. Everything is growing and blooming. Now it looks like we have crossed into the British summer  – rain, rain and more rain, cold and unstable weather, and the occasional bright and warm day. I’ve been alone most of the time, so I did not cook much anyway. But the other day I took a new book from the library, Curry Easy by Madhur Jaffrey. I had already discovered what a great source she is. Now I am kicking myself in the butt for not buying this book any sooner.

This is the kind of book I wish I could write: recipes, simple and clear, with reasonably accessible ingredient, each a loved and tested favourite. They are the kind of recipes you can make every day when you get home from work, with a couple of exceptions. And every recipe works its Indian magic: the flavours, the spices, everything works to create a special result. All that is non essential to the final dish is cut off, and all that is essential is kept and enhanced. I wish I could do that for Italian food, the closest to me. This is a book written by a person who understands her food perfectly, and has the confidence to make it work with substitutions and shortcuts, without losing any soul in the process.

The dishes that came out of this book are the ones that made me fall in love with cooking again. I have been eating a lot of boring food, stir fries randomly thrown in together, just out of laziness. The day I took the book home, with ingredients I already had in my almost empty fridge and the cupboard, I cooked myself a three course feast in less than an hour, and had happy leftovers for two days afterwards. Yesterday I threw this stir fry together in no time at all – I barely noticed it. I could not avoid though noticing the fragrance of curry leaves. It is the first time that I buy them fresh and I never really understood them so far. Now I do. Now I recognize them from many dishes where I could not quite pin down the fragrance. I love it when this happens.

The author suggests as a bold substitution for them, basil leaves. I can sort of understand it, though they do taste different. Buy some fresh curry leaves though, if you have the chance. The smell will linger in your kitchen and in your mouth for hours, and you’ll remember again exactly why we do it.

It’s the flavour that makes life worth living.

Chettinad Chicken

Stir  fried Chettinad Chicken – from Curry Easy by Madhur Jaffrey

4 portions


500 g  cubed chicken breast, or boned tight

salt and pepper

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

olive oil

1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon skinned urad dal, or yellow split peas

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 hot dried red chillies

20 fresh curry leaves, or 8 basil leaved

1/2 onion, chopped

4 medium tomatoes

Method: combine chicken cubes with salt, a lot of black pepper, ginger, turmeric and cayenne. Mix and leave to marinade in the fridge for half an hour (don’t skip, this makes the chicken surprisingly tender).

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet, add the mustard seeds, urid dal and fennel. When the mustard seed start to pop, add chilli, cinnamon and stir for around thirty seconds; add the chopped onion and cook until slightly soft and brown. Add in the marinated chicken and the curry leaves, cook and stir until done. Add the chopped tomato and cook for a further 30 seconds. Good hot and cold.


17 Comments to “The smell of curry leaves”

  1. It looks awesome!

  2. Dear Rosa, I’m so sorry for your turmoil, and so glad you’ve found curry leaves. I\’m lucky enough to have a curry tree in my back yard. Picking off a stem and adding the leaves, one by one, to a sizzling pan of oil and mustard seeds is pure, calm joy for me. Here\’s to curry leaves, and food of all fragrances, always and forever nourishing our souls.

  3. Dear C:

    Playing the devil’s advocate, perhaps the job you chose 5-6 years ago is not the best fit for you? Is there a related field that you could work in that might make you happier and also provide a living? I have been many things – from a bench scientist to someone who writes papers that influence policy, and each, though it seemed a departure from the other, in retrospect actually built upon the last and helped knit together a unique portfolio of expertise.

    Think about it – perhaps you can slide laterally to something that will bring you more joy. . .

    And don’t forget about food either. Like you, I do not have someone to support me while I write my book or play at my blog all day, so I know what it is like to squeeze the passion in on the side. However, on one of those beautiful English days (after the rain dries) go an lay in a beautiful Engish field and contemplate what sort of book you would write if you wrote one. Something unique to you that no one else could do. Jaffrey did Indian food to the nines, what could you do? If you find that thing, then set about doing it on the margins and see what happens. The worst that could happen is that you could remain in the present career and publish cookbooks on the side.

    Food writers do get paid. Usually not a lot unless they are celebrities first, but it is something that you might do on the side for magazines or newspapers or something. . .

    I’ve missed your blog since late April and am glad you are back.



  4. 20 curry leaves? I can smell their very special fragrance across the miles – one of the best culinary scents.

    Sorry you are going through some soul searching, but you will find your way in time. From a practical perspective, we all need a job that fills our bellies and puts roofs over our heads. Many of us will never have that “dream job” (although you may come pretty close) BUT you can quietly make some time on the side to pursue what you love most. It may, indeed, turn into what you are looking for. It’s a life-long process, I might add, but you get to a certain age beyond extreme youth when you can really get on your journey. : }

  5. It sounds like you’ve done some quality soul searching. I’m glad you have a new opportunity and I hope you can figure out how to be proud of yourself. You should be! I know that’s easy to say and hard to do sometimes, though. Glad to see you back!

  6. Glad to see you back. We all go through these phases in which we need to stop and focus on ourselves. I am glad you are finding the right direction… for now…

  7. Glad to see you back. Some times I also want to disappear and stop doing things I “must” do. I haven’t tried curry leaves before as we don’t have them here in Greece but I sure would like to find out how they taste.

  8. Glad to read that you made a decision and that you feel better. Our job is an important part of our life, so it’s important that we find fulfillment in what we do. And I am glad you are cooking for yourself: we tend to stop taking care of our meals when we are alone and that is not a good course of action. In bocca al lupo!

  9. I can relate to your anguished job searching; if it is any consolation, a lot of us go through this very same thing; on the up side, think of the future and how wonderful it will be because you already tried this and that. Love Madhur Jaffrey too, wish I had tried more of her recipes, one of these days, I will go to India and check out the scene in person!

  10. I can relate in many ways to this post – that vague disease at wanting to do more – to feel as though you’ve changed something for someone – for, dare I say it – the world (why not, you did)… I can relate on such a deep, deep level. I hope you find what you are looking for… it is out there and (I find) usually lost within the Bermuda triangle of all your talents – the perfect combination. Good luck.

  11. Hi C:

    If you get this, can you please e-mail me. The folks at the magazine are trying to contact you for rights to one of your Mesopotamian photos for my article (you get paid for it – not to worry).

  12. I am currently going through the same thing, Im really not enjoying my job but I need to pay the bills, wish i could quite and pursue something different. Hope you find yourself.

  13. You need a hug! Our work really does define the lives we lead, doesn’t it. What have I spent my life at? I’m glad you’ve made peace with your choice. And there is nothing better than curry leaves to do it with 🙂 For me, they smell of home.

  14. It looks delicious. I must try it.

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