One of a series of posts in advance of cooking a charity curry.
Patra leaves, also known as alu vadi, are a kind of inside-out pakora. I first encountered them as a tinned food. I grew up in Hull which at the time was not very racially diverse, with few opportunities to buy curry ingredients other than the more limited ranges at supermarkets. There was however an Asian grocers’ near where we lived – Indian & Continental Stores – and my love of curry is born of the smell of this shop and the smell of the cupboard where my parents kept the spices. When cooking, I tend to smell spices before I put them into the pan, perhaps to help me imagine how they will taste, but perhaps also for that remembered thrill of smelling something unknown and intriguing.
My sister is a big fan of patra leaves, which they sold at Indian and Continental. When she left Hull, she couldn’t get patra leaves anywhere (even when she lived in Wolverhampton – the Indian community there was not from Gujarat, where patra leaves originate). For years, she would visit the shop whenever she was in Hull and buy every tin of patra leaves they had.
I found a recipe for patra leaves in the Hansa’s cookbook [Hansa’s is a vegetarian Gujarati restaurant in Leeds]. So I had a go at making them. I bought a pack of the leaves. The leaves are about two feet from the tip to the rounded ends.
First you cut a Y shape out of them to remove the hard ribs.
Then you mix up a paste of chick pea flour, spices, oil and water, which is very stiff and difficult to work.
Then you spread the paste on the leaves, which is difficult as it wants to stay stuck to itself and not the leaves, and because the now-fragile leaves easily tear into three pieces. Then you put on another leaf and spread with paste, then a third leaf and spread with paste. The whole pile is then rolled up into a tight fist-sized pillow. Then you repeat the process for the remaining leaves, of which you have bought enough to make eight or ten rolls.
Then realise that you have been scratching your forehead as it is the middle of summer and baking-, prickly-hot, and that there is an itching spreading across your skin. You remember that the leaves are poisonous when raw and so presumably are causing the itching.
Once all the leaves are used, you steam the pillows for two hours and a half and leave them to cool.
You are now at the same point as you would be if you had bought a tin and opened it – except that, as you will discover later, the tinned version has a much better balance of spices in the paste and tastes far superior to your slaved-over, sworn-at, head-itch-causing rolls. The fault is your own rather than the Hansa’s cookbook’s – it turns out that you – by which I of course mean I – have been rather slapdash in your measurements when making the paste.
I have since seen on the internet that the trick is not to cut a Y-shaped hole in the leaves, but instead to put the blade flat to the back of the leaf and only slice away the raised rib. This keeps the leaf essentially intact, and not prone to splitting in three. I’ve also discovered that you need only steam the rolls for half an hour – the Hansa’s cookbook was not mine, so I can’t now check whether the error there, like the measurement of spices, was also mine.
A little over a year ago, I sous cheffed at a vegan edition of Cath’s Messy Cook Supper Club. One of the courses was a curry course, and we made patra leaves from scratch. They were a roaring success, and nobody’s forehead got poisoned. The only hiccup was that the stall in Leeds market where we ordered the leaves from suggested we should get a box when we asked to order forty. The day before the supper club, when the cooking started in earnest, I arrived at the stall to be presented with a polystyrene box two feet wide and a bill for £22. As I walked away with what must have been two hundred and twenty leaves, I couldn’t help wonder why we hadn’t just been sold two of the rolls of around twenty leaves that were sitting on the stall. You live and learn, I guess.