I distinctly remember the three plants that survived in the tiny, west-facing balcony of my Mumbai apartment in the early 2000s—Italian basil, the hardy tulsi and the Indian borage, or ajwain. Although it is called ajwain patta in Hindi due to a similar flavour profile to the ajwain (carrom) seeds, both are from different plants.
It is highly self-motivated, growing into a lush plant at the slightest nudge, be it on a windowsill or a balcony or in poor soil. Being semi-succulent, it looks rather decorative but can also be used in cooking. Ajwain patta is easy to propagate from cuttings. When you place a cutting from the plant in water, it will readily give out roots, making it simple to grow new plants.
A combination of aesthetics and function is unbeatable, so I recommend that every newbie gardener try their hand at growing this plant to get the much needed green thumb encouragement.
A whole piece can be written just covering the multifarious names of this plant. It is called Indian borage, French thyme, Cuban oregano and pudina (!!) by the Indian population in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname. It’s almost like those naming the plant cannot decide its herb profile. In the early 2000s, when dried oregano wasn’t commonly sold in stores, I would use finely chopped ajwain leaves in pasta or to top home-made pizzas for that oregano-like flavour. Carvacrol and thymol, the compounds in Indian borage that are responsible for its strong flavour, are also found in oregano—no wonder it makes for a reasonable substitute.
Here are some ways you can use Indian borage leaves:
• Chew on a piece of the leaf as a natural mouth freshener.
• Add it to your green chutney to give it a “what’s that unique flavour?” twist.
• Make south Indian-style thogayal, or chutney. Recipe is given here.
• Rasam, made by simmering the leaves in water with the usual flavouring of tamarind water, crushed jeera (cumin seeds), black pepper and curry leaves. Recipe is given here.
• One-two leaves can be added to green juices or smoothies. Too much and your drink will have an overpowering taste.
• A few leaves can be used to make herbal tea, such as the Moroccan mint tea. It makes for a soothing drink in the colder months.
• Crush the leaves, tie in a small square of muslin cloth to make a parcel and squeeze out a teaspoon of juice that can be used as a flavouring ingredient in salad dressings.
• Crushed leaves can also be added to buttermilk and filtered out before drinking for a unique flavour.
• You will also find people making fried bajjis or bhajiya using these leaves. But there are easier and lighter ways to harness the (yet to be scientifically proven) digestive properties of these leaves.
• Like citronella and lemongrass, Indian borage also has a strong smell that keeps away mosquitoes and other pests, making it a useful plant to have in gardens or near seating areas. It’s called karpooravalli in Tamil due to its strong camphor-like aroma.
2-3 handfuls of karpooravalli leaves
1 tsp oil
2 tbsp urad dal
2-3 dried red chillies
Quarter tsp asafoetida powder
1 small piece (2cm) tamarind
Half cup grated coconut
Salt to taste
For the tempering
2 tsp oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp split urad dal
A few curry leaves
Wash and dry the leaves, removing any thick stems. Chop roughly and keep aside. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté urad dal and red chillies until the dal turns golden brown. Add asafoetida powder, tamarind and chopped leaves. Sauté for a minute until the leaves have wilted slightly. Let it cool.
Transfer these ingredients to a mixer jar, along with coconut and salt. Grind to a coarse paste and remove to a bowl.
To prepare the tempering, heat oil in a small pan. Add mustard seeds, urad dal and curry leaves. Once the seeds splutter, transfer it over the prepared thogayal. This can be served immediately or stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container and consumed within two days.
Thogayal can be had with steamed rice and ghee, or with idlis and dosas.
2 tbsp packed tamarind
Half tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 dried red chillies
8 leaves of Indian borage
Quarter cup cooked tur dal
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp grated jaggery (optional)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp ghee
Quarter tsp black mustard seeds
Half tsp cumin seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1-2 tbsp coriander leaves
Soak the tamarind flakes in three cups of hot water for 20 minutes. Squeeze out all the pulp into the water to get tamarind extract. Keep aside.
Grind the peppercorns, cumin seeds, red chillies and two-three leaves of Indian borage in a mixer jar. Keep aside.
In a pan, combine the tamarind extract, salt, turmeric and jaggery. Bring this to a boil and simmer for four-five minutes. To this, add the prepared rasam masala, cooked tur dal, chopped Indian borage leaves (five-six) and some more hot water if needed, and bring to a simmer until the flavours come together (roughly two-three minutes).
Prepare the tadka (tempering) by heating the ghee in a small pan. Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves. When the mustard seeds splutter, add it to the rasam. Garnish with coriander leaves.
Enjoy the rasam with hot rice and ghee or pass it through a sieve and drink as a soup.
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). She tweets @saffrontrail.