Getting to Know Curry Leaves is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters-Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Scientific Name: Murraya koenigii
One of my most enduring memories of growing up was being sent out by my mom at a very early age to pick fresh curry leaves off the trees in our orchard. My sister and I would run off to our favourite bushes, hers being smaller than mine, and try to get the largest handfuls of the freshest, darkest green leaves, so mom would use our contribution to make her dishes. Our curry leaf trees were prolific and every spring lots of new plants would self-seed like little fragrant weeds all over the gardens, and we would then spend hours pulling them out and moving them to other locations.
What Are Curry Leaves?
Sometimes known as sweet neem leaves (regular neem leaves are very different to curry leaves, as they are very bitter), curry leaves are considered both a herb and a spice. The fresh leaves are used more widely than the dried version, which tends to be used for spice mixes and when the fresh ones are unavailable.
The curry plant can easily grow to the size of a tree if left alone, and is usually self-seeding, producing small white flowers and little dark red and black berries. The leaves of the tree are the real treasure and are used mainly in Southern and Western Indian and Sri Lankan cuisines. The tree is only used for its leaves, and the flowers and berries are considered inedible, while the seeds can sometimes be poisonous as well.
The plant itself is really easy to grow outdoors or in containers. In the tropics they're almost considered a weed, as they can spread fast. In colder countries, they can be cultivated in containers indoors. Normally either stem cuttings or seeds are used to propagate the plants, and they need plenty of bright sunshine and warmth, and drained, well fertilized soil to grow indoors.
How to Find, Store and Use Curry Leaves
Curry leaves are used both as a fresh seasoning and as part of several spice mixes. The flavour of curry leaves is a little hard to describe. It's easy to say they smell like curry (well!) but the actual fragrance and flavour reminds me more of a sharp, musky, warm, citrus-like taste, with undertones of spice and smoke.
The fresher the leaves, the more intense the seasoning and the mix. Fresh leaves are available at most Asian and Indian grocery stores, usually in large bunches. The fresher the leaves, the darker green and crisper they are. They're usually found in sprigs of 10 to 12 leaves that are separated for use in recipes. If you can touch them, rub a leaf between your fingers and if the fragrance is strong it means that the leaves are fresh.
Curry leaves do come in large bunches, but recipes only tend to ask for a couple sprigs. Not to worry, the leaves can be very easily stored. If you want to keep them fresh, wrap them in damp paper towels, place them in a glass jar with a little water in the bottom and store them in the door of the fridge.
The easiest way to store them, however, is in the freezer. Pick the leaves off the stems, and make sure they're completely dry. Wrap the leaves in dry paper towel, then place them in heavy duty freezer bags. You can pull out as many leaves as you want at a time, and use them just like you would use the fresh leaves, with no loss of flavour, shape or colour.
Fresh curry leaves can be added either at the beginning of the cooking process or as part of an oil seasoning at the end of the process. To use at the beginning of cooking, they can be sautéed with onions, ginger and garlic. Through the cooking process the leaves can turn a darker green or wilt into a brownish colour. When used at the end, curry leaves are part of what we call the 'tarka,' or a tempering process, which involves heating up oil and sizzling in cumin leaves, whole garlic, whole dried chilies and curry leaves. This tempering is poured directly on to the cooked dish, which is then covered. The pot is uncovered at the table to release the delicious trapped aromas and the tempering is then stirred into the dish. This is a very common process when making dals or rasams, or simple vegetable dishes, and many South Asian cooks call this process their secret weapon for adding that extra "something something" to everyday dishes.
When used to make spice mixes, like a classic Madras curry powder, the fresh leaves need to be toasted until crisp before using. Dried curry leaves can also be used, but I prefer the sharp fragrance of fresh curry leaves. To toast curry leaves, heat up a pan and then scatter the picked leaves in it. You will soon see them curl up and start smoking and browning around the edges, releasing an almost medicinal aroma. Take them off the heat, let cool, and add to your remaining spices to make your spice mix. You can also powder toasted fresh curry leaves to add to your Indian dishes along with other spices. They add a delicate, subtle smokiness to the whole dish.
Non-Culinary Uses of Curry Leaves
Like most herbs and spices, curry leaves have a whole host of health benefits and have been used in various forms of traditional and herbal medicines. They're packed with various vitamins and folic acid, and have been known to fight heart diseases, anemia and diabetes. They're also used in religious ceremonies in South Asia and India, and are also a huge part of the herbal cosmetic industry, as they're considered great for skin and hair.
Curry Leaf Trivia
And finally, did you know that a lot of people just discard the leaves at the side of their plates as they consider them just a seasoning? It's usually because the leaves do tend to overwhelm other flavours in the dish. But, to eat or not to eat the leaves is up to you — they are pretty tasty, even if they can be quite an acquired taste.
Looking for more spices and herbs to jazz up your kitchen creations? Check out these Spice Box profiles:
What have you made with curry leaves lately? Let us know in the comments!