All About Tej Patta
I made peas pulav for lunch today, and when I added tej patta (usually - and erroneously, it turns out - refered to as bay leaves by most Indian cooks) to the oil, I found myself wondering yet again how closely related it might be to feuille de laurier ( laurel leaves), a popular herb in Mediterranean and other western cuisines.
I had always imagined that the two might be related, since they look quite similar. But it turns out that they are very different.
Tej Patta (tamalpatra in Sanskrit and Marathi and often called bay leaf or Indian bay leaf in English) is a tough, three veined, very aromatic leaf that is much used in north Indian cuisine . It does in fact come from a tree - the malabathrum -which belongs to the Laurel or Lauraceae family, as do the true bay/laurel trees (such as the Laurus Nobilis tree grown in the Mediterranean region or other laurel/bay trees like the California Laurel, Turkish Laurel etc.) whose leaves - true claimants to the term "bay leaf "- are used in western cuisines.
The cinnamomum tamala (malabathrum) tree - grown in both the Himalayas and southern India - is, however, a different genus from that of bay trees, so it is inaccurate to term the leaves of the former as bay leaves.
The malabathrum tree is closely related to the cinnamon tree - they belong to the same genus - and the aroma and the fragrance of tej patta is in fact somewhat reminiscent of cinnamon. This is another way to distinguish between tej patta and bay/laurel leaves - the latter have a fragrance more like pine and lemon. Also, bay - or laurel- leaves are longer and slimmer than tej patta.
Apart from being an important flavoring agent in biryanis and many other meat-based dishes, tej patta is also used in the preparation of a Bhutanese herbal tea called Tsheringma. You can read more about its recipe, and the benefits, here http://www.itmonline.org/arts/bhutan.htm
and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsheringma
I was interested to see that apart from tej patta, Tsheringma's other ingredient are petals of the safflower plant. Since this plant is also the source of a cooking oil known to be heart-healthy, I am inclined to think that there has to be a sound basis to the benefits this tea is said to offer, according to Bhutanese tradition.
The essential oils from the leaf were used in ancient times in India as well as other parts of the worlds for perfumes as well as for medicinal purposes. First century Greek texts mention these leaves as being a major export of southern Indian kingdoms.
Some research has found the oils to have an antifungal property. Significantly, this property is not adversely affected by temperature or storage, so the use of tej patta in cooking would not diminish this effect, I guess.
Tej patta leaves are also used as a treatment for colic and diarrhoea.
Different parts of the plant are used in many Ayurvedic preparations.
Here's where I learnt more about tejpatta -