This National Gardening Week why not turn up the heat in the garden with expert tips on the best herbs and spices for homegrown curry pastes
A teaspoon of shop-bought curry paste or a pinch of powder was considered ‘doing a curry’ by many of us 30 years ago – with those who created their own spice mix considered really adventurous.
Now that we all crave those authentic heady aromas and piquant flavours that come from using fresh ingredients, supermarkets shelves have become stacked with spices to enhance our dhals and dhansaks. But with most of these sub tropical natives flown half way around the world to reach us, the food miles can be harder to swallow.
One way to slash your spice footprint, and strengthen the flavour of your curry pastes is by growing youthful handfuls yourself. Many of the supposed ‘exotics’ such as methi, kaffir lime and chilli can be grown here with very little extra effort – and you could even expand your horizons further and have a go at growing ginger and turmeric too.
Spice it up
For garden designer Nic Wilson, variety is the spice of life. “I remember foraging for bilberries and hazelnuts in the Welsh lanes with my granny when I was small, and it made me want to grow more indigenous wild plants and crops from other countries, such as oca from the Andes and kaffir lime from tropical Asia,” says Nic. “It’s a challenge; it requires learning about new plants, which is always fun; and you get to experience new tastes. A lot of my motivation comes from the meal at the end of the process.”
Starting out with just a few plants, Nic’s curry collection has grown to include achocha, yacon and fuchsiaberries at the allotment; lemongrass, Inca berries, cucamelons and Thai basil in the greenhouse; lemon verbena and Vietnamese coriander in pots; and kaffir lime and vanilla grass in the house.
“There are even edibles hidden in my front garden such as creeping mint, lemon thyme and Chilean guavas,” says Nic. “It’s much cheaper to grow unusual herbs than to buy them from the shops.”
Among Nic’s favourites is mint. Low maintenance and with dozens of different varieties, they are great in a raita and easy to propagate. “Cut off a 2cm piece of root, place just under the compost in a pot and water, and within a couple of weeks you should have a new plant,” says Nic. “I tend to grown on in pots rather than in the ground as they can become invasive, and they like to be kept well-watered.”
Hot off the press
Indoors, Nic experiments with slightly more challenging crops. Her kaffir lime, a member of the citrus family, requires a warm spot to thrive and can be grown for its leaves as well as its fruit.
“All you need is space for a pot on your windowsill,” says Nic. “I’ve grown one in the kitchen for several years and as long as you give it regular citrus feeds throughout the summer and keep the soil moist, it rewards you with aromatic leaves all year round.”
For best results, take your kaffir lime outside into a sheltered spot in the summer and bring it in the winter, ideally into a conservatory or a cool room that maintains a temperature of around 10 degrees.
Chillies have also become “a bit of an obsession” for Nic, and she now has more than 15 varieties.
“My mum tried some and was surprised that each chilli had a different taste; they’re much more varied than shop bought fruits,” she says. “My current favourite is ‘Aji Limon’, which has yellow fruits with a citrus tang.”
Nic starts all her chillies from seed in January or February to give them enough time to fruit before the end of the growing season. “They can be used as houseplants – the fruits are decorative as well as delicious – and can be grown in pots outdoors, or in a greenhouse. I even overwinter them for earlier crops the next year,” she says.
Methi in one’s madness
Fellow chilli lover and cookery school founder Bini Ludlow at Sweet Cumin likes to grow herbs and spices for her Gujarati-inspired recipes, passed down to her from her West Indian family.
“My uncle was brilliant at growing, and I remember his greenhouse was full of wonderful herbs and flowers,” she says. “He loved tropical and unusual plants from his travels around the world and I was inspired to hear about his adventures and learn about the food he’d sampled.”
Today, Bibi grows ginger, coriander and methi (or fenugreek), among many other fragrant vegetables at her garden on the Mendip Hills in Somerset – all helped along by a good dose of vegetable-peeling compost from her cookery classes.
“We sow methi from mid-March into fertile compost and cover with soil, and water, and then let the sun and Mother Nature take its course,” she says. “By May you should have sufficient growth to start harvesting. I use a handful of young leaves in Gujarati thepla, a spiced pancake.”
Bini has also had success with ginger, which she grows from knobbly off-cuts from the supermarket. She recommends breaking off a 2cm piece with plenty of shooting eyes (small yellow tips) and planting just below the surface of some potting compost. Cover with a bag and keep warm on a windowsill and in a few weeks green shoots will appear.
“Each eye will grow into a plant,” says Bini. “And you can harvest after eight months when the leaves start to die.” Alternatively, you can also grow ginger root as ‘stem ginger’ – a sweeter, younger version of the fiery old spice, which can be eaten fresh.
Or how about turmeric? Like ginger, this can be grown from the rhizome and, if potted up – and kept at around 20C – it will sprout from nodules within 4-5 weeks. Uncover and grow on indoors, and use the roots and dried leaves in curry pastes.
For Nic, homegrown curry ingredients make all the difference to her cookery. “What excites me about herbs, in particular, is that only a small amount can transform a meal. Adding fresh coriander or kaffir lime leaves fills the kitchen with such evocative scents, and they allow for much more complex flavours to develop,” she says.
“I think it’s liberating to cook with what the garden offers rather than what a recipe book dictates, and it’s a great way to celebrate the seasonality of food.”
Four veg that curry favour
Spice up your life with these easy to grow curry ingredients
Kaffir lime leaves
How: Grow on a warm, bright windowsill; dose with citrus feed and keep moist during summer.
Use: “I make a green curry paste with kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, chillies, lemongrass, and pumpkin,” says garden designer Nic Wilson.
How: Grow from seed, in situ, in a large pot. Fennel thrives in sun, growing to 6ft outdoors, so give it plenty of room!
Use: “In the autumn, I remove the flowers and allow them to dry and this produces the most delicious fennel ever,” says cookery schoolteacher Bini Ludlow. “I use it in my homemade garam masala blend with a combination of cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon etc, and it’s great in a cauliflower and potato curry.”
How: Happy growing outside from June onwards in rows at the veg plot or in pots. Keep soil moist so it doesn’t bolt. If you see flowers, give them a chop and fresh leaves will grow.
Use: “I use the leaves in salads but when I cook with it, I also pop the stalk in too as this has the most flavour. Great with silky aubergine or okra,” says Bini.
How: Sow from seed, or find healthy looking stalks at the supermarket and pop them into water. Change the water regularly and after a few weeks roots should develop, and you can pot up into gritty compost. Harvest in September or bring indoors to overwinter.
Use: The whole leaf can be used, not just the thick stem. Finely dice or crush and add to curries, teas and even your bath!
First published in Vegetarian Living
I’m a freelance journalist specialising in food and drink, gardening and health and wellbeing. Based in Northampton in the East Midlands, I’ve written for national newspapers and magazines, as well as producing regular video content for Garden Tags. You can hear me every month on Helen Blaby’s BBC Radio Northampton programme