Most packets of bay leaves (tejpatta) that have been sitting on the supermarket shelves for months, if not years, fast losing their aroma and flavour, are only good for non-edible uses. Some of them being “writing your problems on it and burning them to banish all your problems”. Or burning them in a pot to “remove negative energy and bring peace into your house”. If I rolled my eyeballs any further at these “achche din” effects of bay leaves, it would be hard to bring them back.
As a spice (or herb, if you prefer it that way), bay leaf is given shoddy treatment, like the 13th man in a cricket team. Old flavourless bay leaves added to savoury dishes like curries, pulaos and biryanis only make their large leafy presence felt without contributing anything positive to the dish.
If you truly want to elevate the status of bay leaf in your spice cabinet beyond inbox spam, here’s what you should do. It’s the most obvious advice on all things spice or herb related but when it comes to bay leaf, we seem to forget it. Freshness and quality matter. Get it from an exclusive spice shop or “masala mart”, as they are called in Mumbai. You will get to touch and smell the leaves before buying them. Shops like these have fast circulation of spices, ensuring that nothing is languishing in a plastic packet at the back of the shelves. Buy a small quantity that you can use up in a month or two.
Before getting on with what to make with bay leaves, a clarification needs to be made about the nomenclature. The original bay leaves (bay laurel) come from the Laurus nobilis tree, which grows profusely in the Mediterranean, and were used in ancient Greek rituals, such as wearing crowns and making wreaths. The Indian bay leaf, which we call tejpatta in Hindi, is from the tree Cinnamomum tamala (therefore, tamalpatra in Sanskrit and Gujarati), giving the dish a cinnamon-y flavour and aroma, as the scientific name suggests. The Indian bay leaf, or tejpatta, is double the length and width of the bay laurel. The vein structure of the two leaves differs too, the bay laurel having just one central vein and tejpatta having three central veins.
To add to the confusion, there are also West Indian bay leaves, which are from the tree Pimenta racemose, belonging to the myrtle family. These leaves have an intense fragrance of clove and cinnamon, with a sweet flavour. They are used in Caribbean dishes like soups, stews and rice recipes. The leaves are also distilled to get an essential oil called myrcia oil. Two-three leaves are simmered in water to get a warming cup of tea served with the addition of milk and sugar.
In Indian cooking, whole tejpattas are added to hot oil or ghee as part of the whole spices tadka (tempering) to prepare many savoury dishes in north Indian and Bengali cooking. They are also used to flavour the rice in pulao and biryani. The leaves are tough and bitter, so it is best to remove them from the dish before serving. The bay laurel leaf (the OG bayleaf) is used to prepare tomato sauce for pasta, in soups and stews, both vegetarian and meat-based, in Mediterranean cooking.
In the case of all kinds of bay leaves, the dried leaves have a better flavour profile, even though they lose their green colour and turn a pale brown, than the fresh ones, which have more bitterness. Longer cooking times draw out the best flavours from bay leaves.
A dish that relies wholly on the flavour of the Indian bay leaf is a sweet snack from Kerala called chakkayappam or kumbilappam. A batter of ripe jackfruit, jaggery, coconut and rice flour is poured into cones made from large, fresh Indian bay leaves and the top flap of the leaf is folded inside the parcel, to resemble well-stuffed paans. These parcels are then steamed until the mixture inside is set. The Indian bay leaves impart their unique flavour to the steamed dumplings.
They are also used in the making of Bengali chaler payesh (rice kheer). A couple of bay leaves are simmered with the milk to which gobindobhog rice is added. The leaves are discarded before serving the payesh.
My favourite non-edible use is not dispelling negative energy but using them as a natural pest repellent. Inserting a few bay leaves into jars of grains, lentils and other spices is the best way to keep worms and other unwanted guests out.
Bay leaf infusion
Prepare this infusion and give that warm, wintry flavour to lemonades and cocktails.
Makes around 375ml
20-30 bay leaves
3 cups water
Combine the leaves and water in a pot. Bring to a boil and simmer until it has reduced to half. Transfer to a bottle, label and refrigerate.
How to use: Add 4-5 tbsp of this bay leaf infusion in the batter of tea cakes, to the egg mixture in caramel custard and to the cream in anglaise sauces.
Add a few tablespoons to winter cocktails like hot toddy or to gin cocktails.
Add a few tablespoons to flavour a batch of ready kombucha or lemonade.
Bay leaf extract
Makes around 100ml
20-30 bay leaves
Dark rum, bourbon or vodka
Fill a 200ml glass jar with bay leaves. Top it with the spirit you are using. Tightly cover with lid and let it sit for two months in a cool dark place.
How to use: Use instead of, or in combination with, vanilla extract to create a new flavour profile in bakes and desserts.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.