Looking to broaden your culinary horizons? Then, I highly recommend that you consider picking up a few stalks of curry leaves. What are they? Curry leaves are to South Indian cuisine what bay leaves are to American cooking — subtle, fragrant, and used to add subtle background flavor to dishes. If you consider yourself a lover of Indian food, you need to get some curry leaf in your life.
What is Curry Leaf?
Don’t let their name fool you — curry leaves and curry powder are miles apart. While curry powder is a blend of warm, aromatic herbs and spices created by the British, curry leaf is an herb used in Indian cuisine. It comes from a tropical plant called the curry tree, also known as curry plant, that is native to India and Sri Lanka. Curry trees bear fragrant, teardrop-shaped green leaves, which are practically omnipresent in South Indian cooking. Before we get into the details of what curry leaf tastes like, let’s get this out of the way: if you’re ever at a nursery and come across a curry plant thinking that it’ll bear the wonderfully aromatic leaves favored in South Indian cooking, do not buy it! It is actually a completely different plant that, unfortunately, has no culinary use.
Curry leaves are in the same family as citrus fruit, and while they have citrus notes, that’s not all there is to them. They have a pungent aroma and a bitter flavor with herbal notes similar to basil. They have also been described as having notes of asafoetida, the powdered form of another pungent herb that tastes similar to leeks when added to dishes.
They also have a lengthy history in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is believed that these green leaves hold antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antidiabetic properties.
Curry leaves don’t have the same, dominating flavor as other pungent spices like whole cumin and mustard seeds. Like bay leaf in stews and other American dishes, they add flavor to the background of dals, curries, rasam, idli podi, sambar, and more. But unlike bay leaf, curry leaf is edible and does not need to be removed. You might come across some Indian dishes that call for you to remove curry leaf prior to serving — if you can’t find it (or if you don’t feel like playing a game of “where’s the curry leaf?”) then your dish won’t suffer for it. Pro-tip: when a recipe calls for one to two curry leaves, it doesn’t mean single leaves — it means stalks, sans the actual stalk.
Typically, curry leaf is bruised (crush them lightly prior to adding them to the pot/pan) and then cooked in oil typically with cumin and mustard seeds. It also pairs beautifully with asafoetida. This is a cooking technique called tadka and it can be used at the start or finish of any dish. Don’t be shy about experimenting with tadka in dishes outside of Indian cooking — it can work wonders on stews, chilis, and Italian sauces as well. Cooked curry leaf can also be used to finish dishes.
The most popular use of curry leaf is in dal, a type of pulse-based Indian stew. This Yellow Dal With Curry Leaves is finished with a tadka of fresh curry leaves, black mustard seeds, and Kashmiri chili. These Indian Tangy Lentils also use a tadka that includes fresh curry leaves and in this Kitchari, they’re simply thrown into a pot with rice, lentils, and subtle spices.
Curry leaf is popular in soups, particularly rasam, a tangy South Indian soup with strong notes of tamarind. But if you can’t find tamarind near you, try this Lemon Rasam, where curry leaves are sautéed with fenugreek, mustard seeds, and asafoetida at the start of the dish. You can find the same tadka tempering trick in this hearty Pigeon Pea Soup With Opo Squash. And in this Bise Bele Bath, a South Indian rice and lentil stew, cooked curry leaves are stirred in at the very end.
Like their name suggests, you can also use curry leaves to make curry, where it is typically used as an ingredient in the masala paste. This Baby Jackfruit Curry is made with a masala paste that includes sautéed curry leaves as does this South Indian-Style Kurma. Curry leaf isn’t exclusive to just South Indian curry, though. This Bunny Chow, a South African curry, uses curry leaves in the masala while this Malaysian Kari Laksa uses them to flavor the broth in the same way that one would use bay leaves.
That being said, there are also plenty of fun, creative ways to use curry leaves. Add them to rice dishes, tofu scrambles, stir-fries, and more – just be sure to always cook them first. You don’t want raw curry leaves.
If you live close to an Indian market, then you’re in luck! Curry leaves can be found among the produce and fresh herbs at any Indian market, there they are sold on stems with fresh leaves. When selecting curry leaves, look for green, slightly glossy leaves and avoid any that look dry — they won’t add as much flavor to dishes. If you buy a bunch and don’t plant to use them all at once, you can wrap them tightly in plastic and freeze them. You can also find frozen curry leaves at most Indian markets — you don’t need to thaw the frozen leaves before you cook with them. Just throw them right into the pot/skillet! Frozen leaves should keep from between four to six weeks.
If you can’t find curry leaves anywhere near you, you can buy fresh leaves, like these Fresh Curry Leaves by Cado’s Kitchen. A one-ounce bunch of leaves costs $6.50. Or, you can grow your own using this Curry Leaf Tree Starter Plant by Thai Greenhouse. One starter plant costs about $35 and the plant itself is evergreen, so you should have fresh leaves as long as you take good care of your tree. Or, dry dried curry leaves, like these Dried Curry Leaves by Burma Spice. One .5-ounce bag costs about $13. Since they are not as aromatic as fresh leaves, just be sure to use more leaves than what the recipes call for.
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