This Smashed Potato Salad with Turmeric and Curry Leaf Dressing is bright, lemony and vibrant, and it is infused with good health. It’s the perfect side dish for a picnic or for a dinner at home. A vegan, soy-free, gluten-free and nut-free recipe.
As we left Chennai this time, my sister-in-law, Paddu, pressed into our hands a few bulky packets of vatrals, or vadams, a crunchy side that’s served with every traditional south Indian meal. The vadams came from a store tucked into the building where Paddu lives, in Mambalam, a buzzing pocket of the megalopolis that’s infused with small-town charm and where you can still find a person’s home just by asking around.
The best way I can describe a vadam is as a cracker made with tapioca, rice, or potatoes. They come in all shapes — some are round, some square, some are shaped like bird nests and some like squiggly sticks (although I think the bird nests and squiggly ones are called vatrals). Typically, vadams look like bits of rice paper speckled with cumin. When you fry them, they puff up to twice their size and turn into crackly, crispy clouds of deliciousness.
The vadams Paddu gave us were made by the storekeeper’s wife in her small kitchen. Desi remembers his mother making vadams and drying them on the terrace of their home in Chromepet, in Chennai. And each summer, I remember the mother of my Tamil friend and neighbor, Radha, making vadams by the armful. A small, slight, no-nonsense woman, she would lug an outsized pot filled with a bubbling, viscous liquid up to the terrace of the two-story apartment building. Summers in Bombay, true to their notoriety, are unbearable, the intense heat infused with a dense humidity that seeps in from the ocean surrounding the island city. The tar lining the terrace floor, meant to keep the heavy summer rains from intruding into the apartments below, would intensify the heat, making it smack unbearably at our feet as Radha and I spread out several clean saris on the terrace and weighed them down at the corners with stones so they wouldn’t fly away.
Radha’s mom would then use a long-handled spoon to quickly ladle out the goop into small, thin crepes on top of the sari.
As the vadams dried, Radha, her sister and her brother would take turns to sit by them in the shade of the water tank, a long stick in hand, to drive away any crows looking for an easy feast. Sometimes, when it was Radha’s turn, I’d sit with her for company. The vadams had to dry thoroughly before they could be safely packed and stashed away for the rest of the year.
None of my sisters-in-law make vadams anymore, and neither, I am sure, does Radha. I read an article in an Indian paper not long ago that called it a “lost art.” And although you can buy vadams made by machines aplenty, including here in the United States, the homemade ones, like the ones sold by that storekeeper and his wife in Mambalam, are just so much better. So I didn’t mind lugging them in our bags all the way back to D.C.
We Indian expats are notorious for hauling back food from visits back home as if we are about to be marooned on a desert island with no resources in sight. Every student leaving India to go to school here has stories of bulging packets of sambar or rasam or garam masala powder carried past the customs’ officials watchful eyes. Some go too far: the last time we were at the airport returning from India, we found one family standing at the customs table with a haul that included a head of cauliflower, an eggplant and a cabbage (I don’t make this stuff up).
In my early years in the United States, one plant that I would have loved to sneak in — although I never did — was a curry leaf plant.
Curry leaves can be bought at Indian grocery stores, but back in my student days, when I didn’t have a car, the Indian grocery store about seven miles away might as well have been in Bombay. Even after I got a car and started cooking more, going to the Indian store was a once-every-two-months kinda thing. It became increasingly easy to find Indian groceries online and sometimes even in supermarkets. But the one thing that remained impossible to find outside the Indian store were curry leaves.
Four years ago, I was delighted to find a tiny curry leaf plant at the Indian store. I paid a small fortune for the puny little thing and today, it is a seven-foot tree that gives me more curry leaves than I can handle.
To say that I love my curry leaf plant would be to understate it. It is the only plant that has survived my lack of a green thumb, partly because it is a naturally hardy plant but also because I know just how precious it is. It cannot withstand the cold temperatures of our northeast winters, so come September Desi and I lug the heavy tub it sits in up the backyard stairs and into the den where it can soak up the sunlight from a large window. Last year, Billy, our intrepid little cat, kept up a persistent campaign of harassment against the poor curry leaf plant, digging up the dirt, exposing the roots, and doing heaven alone knows what else to it, before I could finally release it back outdoors for Spring.
Since we are in the final days of summer, I recently gave my curry leaf plant a haircut, to encourage it to put out more branches in the still warm and humid weather. Since wasting curry leaves is sacrilege so far as Desi is concerned (you’d have to be a Tamil to get that), I have been trying to use them up in interesting ways.
One of my favorite creations so far has been this Smashed Potato Salad with a Turmeric and Curry Leaf Dressing.
I make smashed potatoes a lot because Jay loves them — who doesn’t? — and I love finding different ways to flavor them.
For this very simple dressing, inspired by a south Indian tadka, I used turmeric, curry leaves cut into ribbons, mustard seeds and lemon juice.
It’s really a very simple dressing, but it makes this Smashed Potato Salad absolutely and incredibly delicious.
This is a great way to use up all those curry leaves you can sometimes have on hand after a trip to the Indian grocery store. Shredding the leaves and crisping them up in the oil makes them even more delicious and since curry leaves have a host of health benefits, from improving blood sugar levels to fighting cholesterol, you’ll be doing yourself a favor in more ways than one.
Here’s the recipe. If you try it, be sure to let me know, and if you have a favorite food you like to bring in from overseas, I’d love to hear!
- 20 small or new potatoes
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (coconut oil is great for this, but if you prefer not to use it, use any other vegetable oil, like peanut oil or avocado)
- 2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 20-30 curry leaves (stack four or five curry leaves at a time, roll them up and shred them into ribbons with a knife)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 medium jalapeno (deseeded if hot and thinly sliced)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- Salt to taste
Place the potatoes in a saucepan, cover with water by an inch, bring to a boil, cover and let the potatoes cook 10 minutes or until a knife pierced in the center of a potato goes through cleanly. Remove the potatoes from the heat, drain, and reserve.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
On a baking sheet lined with parchment or coated with cooking spray, place the potatoes an inch apart. Using your fingers or the heel of your hand or a fork, smash each potato, using just enough force so the potato flattens but holds together in a single piece.
Place the potatoes in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, turning the potatoes over once halfway. After the potatoes have cooked, remove them to a bowl.
In a small skillet, heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds and, when they sputter, add the jalapeno, curry leaves and turmeric. Stir-fry for a minute or two until the curry leaves become crispy.
Turn off the heat, and pour the seasoned oil and all of the seasonings over the potatoes, then add the lemon juice. Use salad spoons or two ladles to toss the potatoes with the dressing.
Serve immediately or at room temperature.