A fistful of fresh curry leaves, and a few mustard seeds sizzling and spluttering in a couple of spoons of hot coconut oil make an amazing final flourish to most South Indian savory dishes. “A particularly ingenious South Asian technique for getting flavor to come forward,” write Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in their book Mangoes and Curry Leaves.” Spend some time in this part of the world, and you too will come back addicted to this delicious combination”.
Curry leaves, native to South Asia, are a leafy herb that grow on the aromatic shrub Murraya koenigii, belonging to the citrus family. These shiny green and delightfully fragrant leaves get their name from their use in curries.
Curry leaves are extensively used for their distinct fragrance in the cooking of South India and Sri Lanka, and they are also of some importance in other Indian cuisines. For some dishes, flash frying is step one, with other ingredients stirred in after the aromatics release their fragrance. For others, addition of fried curry leaves and spices is the final step. With certain coconut milk-based curries cooked along with fresh ginger and shallots, unheated coconut oil and fresh curry leaves make the perfect garnish. The use of curry leaves as a flavoring agent was described in ancient Tamil manuscripts of South India. In fact, the word “curry” originates from the Tamil word “kari” which means vegetables, fish or meat cooked in a spicy sauce.
Increasingly easier to find — or grow
Together with South Indian immigrants, curry leaves reached Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, Pacific Islands, and the United States. Years ago, every South Indian arriving in the United States faced one sure question from the customs agent: “Do you have any curry leaves with you?” Today fresh curry leaves are available year-round in Indian markets in the U.S., and they are less expensive than most common herbs found in supermarkets. Many South Indians in the United States have at least one precious curry leaf plant growing in a pot or in their backyards, and plant nurseries from New Jersey to California supply curry leaf plants. They are also commercially cultivated in Florida and Hawaii.
The curry leaf plant thrives in well-drained soil in warm temperatures with plenty of sunshine. While it can grow 8 to 10 feet tall, you need only a small plant to supply you with an abundance of leaves. During summer, the plant starts producing berries, which, if left alone, will turn into a crown of white flowers. This will slow down leaf growth. Trim the berries as they begin to appear at the tips; this will encourage new leaf growth.
When buying curry leaves, choose fresh leaves that show no signs of yellowing or wilting. They can be stored, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator, for up to two weeks or they may also be frozen. Bring out the flavor in frozen leaves by thawing, and then frying in a little coconut oil. You could use these leaves with other oils too, but coconut oil or ghee brings out the best in them. Dried curry leaves have much less flavor as the flavor is concentrated in the volatile oils.
Health benefits along with great flavor
Besides imparting flavor to dishes, curry leaves have wonderful health benefits. They are low in calories, contain essential oils that are soluble in water and are rich in fiber, folic acid, beta carotene, calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Curry leaves, as well as the bark and roots of the plant, are used in Indian ayurvedic medicine in the treatment of diabetes and for keeping the digestive system healthy. This herb is also used in the treatment of skin irritations.
Curry leaf is a natural crossover ingredient. Add a few leaves to whatever you are cooking, and even ordinary dishes become resplendent with minimum effort. They pair well with meat, seafood, and vegetables alike.
While living on the East Coast, it was difficult to find good fresh coconuts at the grocers during winter months. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that almonds combined with fresh curry leaves made a good substitute for fresh coconut chutney. Try this simple almond chutney — it makes a healthy and tasty dip.
For the chutney:
1 cup unsalted almonds
4 to 5 dried hot cayenne or Thai chili peppers (less for a milder taste)
½ cup tightly packed fresh curry leaves
salt to taste
⅓ cup water
For the garnish:
1 tablespoon coconut oil
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
6 to 8 fresh curry leaves
- Combine almonds, chili peppers, curry leaves, salt, and water together in a blender and grind into a thick smooth puree.
- In a small skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium heat, and add a ½ teaspoon of mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start sputtering, add curry leaves and fry for a minute. Remove from the stove.
- Pour the flavored oil along with curry leaves and mustard seeds over the almond puree. Serve at room temperature.