Special Ingredients: Curry Leaves

This post continues the Curry series I started with: Britain’s National Dish is… and Curry, A World Traveler I am continuing my exploration of these them and future posts will cover curry beyond, India and Britain.  Like Salad Oliveh this is truly a global dish and has influenced many cultures.

photo from estrip.org

photo from estrip.org

I have seen curry leaves in the markets I frequent around San Francisco, and remember seeing them on rare occasions at the Asian markets that dotted the DC suburbs, but had never given them more than a passing glance.  I confess to being a bit confused about them in context with curries (curry dishes) and curry powder.  None of my curry powder contains curry leaves (link to site listing ingredients in several curry powders.  For the record, some do contain curry leaves), what do they have that curry powder doesn’t?  Is that leaf the single source of curry flavor?  Why is it not in my curry powder, have all the random brands I selected over the year been wrong?  How do you use it?  Do you use it fresh, or dried, and what’s the difference?  What have I been missing?  (You can probably see at this point, why I mostly grocery shop solo; otherwise, I’d drive my long suffering husband to distraction.)

What are curry leaves?

They are the young leaves of the curry tree (Karivepallai), a member of the Murraya koenigii line of that incredibly productive citrus family, specifically the Rutaecae side of the family. Fresh curry leaves are oval in shape; reminding me a bit of lemon leaves. The curry tree is native to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Andaman Islands.  Indian migrants carried them with them, and they now grow in around the world where Indian immigrants settled. Widely cultivated, the leaves are mainly associated with South Indian and Malaysian cuisines.

Other Names

Alternative names for curry leaf throughout India include: It is also called barsunga (Bengali), pindosin (Burmese), gai leu yiph (Cantonese), karry blad (Danish), kerriebladerer (Dutch), feuilles de curry (French), curryblatter (German), kari patta, meetha neem (Hindi), aley kari (Hebrew), curry levelek (Hungarian), fogli di cari (Italian), daun kari (Indonesian/ Malaysian), kore rihu (Japanese), karibue (Kannada), khibe (Laotinan), kareapela (Malayalam), kadhi limbu (Marathi), karriblader (Norwegian), folhas de caril (Portuguese), bowala (Punjabi), listya karri (Russian), karapincha (Singhalese), hojas de curry (Spanish), bizari (Swahili), bignay (Tagalog), kariveppilai (Tamil), karepeku (Telegu), bai karee (Thai), and la cari (Vietnamese).

photo courtesy of sciaf.org.uk

photo courtesy of sciaf.org.uk

The name “curry leaf” came from the British who were living in India who attached the word “curry” to the leaf of an ingredient of the ubiquitous seasoning sauce made by the Tamils.  (Source: The EpiCentre )

How to use

Curry leaves are a common South Indian spice, and since cuisine from Southern India is primarily vegetarian, this spice seldom appears in meat and fish dishes.  The leaves are mainly used fresh, but are also used dried or powdered.   For some recipes, the leaves are oven-dried or toasted immediately before use to change the profile of the flavor.  Another common technique is short frying in ghee or oil to release the flavors into the oil. Also the seasoning of ghee with these leaves is said to reduce the possibility of the ghee going rancid.  Common dishes where they can be found include vegetable curries and samosa stuffings, in some curry powders.  In my readings, most chefs, said that fresh is best, as the flavor is diminished by drying, a few culinary experts said to just skip the dried stuff – for them it was fresh or nothing.  Frozen leaves can also be found, but like dried the aroma and flavor suffered for extended shelf life.  If you are able to find a fresh batch, they are usually attached to the stem.  Keep the leaves on said stem until just prior to use as they start drying out immediately.

Harold McGee describes the taste of these leaves as mild and subtle, with woody, fresh notes.

Aloo Baigan Sabji (Curried Potatoes with Eggplant)

Recipe adapted from Lord Krishna’s Cuisine – The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi

serves 5 to 6

Ingredients

1/3 c plain yogurt
½” piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 seeded hot, green chilies, coarsely chopped
1/3 c shredded coconut
1/2 tsp garam masala
4 T ghee (also known as clarified butter) or vegetable oil works in a pinch
1 tsp black mustard seeds
½ T cumin seeds
8-10 curry leaves, preferably fresh
¼ tsp asafetida
6 medium potatoes, steamed, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
1 T ground coriander seed
1 small eggplant cut into 1″ cubes and steamed until tender
1 tsp salt
3 T chopped cilantro
1 T lemon juice

Directions

Combine yogurt, ginger, chilies and coconut in a blender and process until smooth.  Add the garam masala, pulse a few more times and set aside.

Heat the ghee in a heavy large saucepan over moderately high heat.  When the oil/ghee is hot, but not smoking at the mustard and cumin seeds and fry until the mustard seeds sputter and the cumin seeds turn golden brown.  Stir in the curry leaves and asafetida and immediately add the potatoes.  Stir fry for 3-4 minutes and them pour in the seasoned yogurt, turmeric, coriander, eggplant, salt and have the remaining fresh herb.  Gently toss to coat.

Reduce heat to medium and then frt, gently tossing the vegetables until they are dry,  Before serving mix in lemon juice and remaining fresh herbs.

Other Dish Ideas:

RasaMalaysia uses curry leaves for butter prawns

The Perfect Pantry has a mulligatawny soup recipe using curry leaves

MonsoonSpice has curry leave chutney powder as recipe

WorldFoodieGuilde tried a Sri Lankan fish cake with curry leaves

Update me when site is updated

21 comments for “Special Ingredients: Curry Leaves

  1. October 30, 2009 at 5:03 PM

    I don’t know if I can get curry leaves at stores…I’d like to try it in a dish!!
    Ohhh I’ve also the confusion with curry powder and curry leaves…always learning :)

    Cheers!

    Gera

  2. October 30, 2009 at 6:13 PM

    I’ve seen them in several markets as well. I’ve always been tempted in getting some, but I’ve never been sure of how I would use them. Some good info on the leaves here.

  3. October 30, 2009 at 10:16 PM

    I’ve always been tempted to get some, too, but have yet to. Thanks for nudging me to start playing around with them in the kitchen.

  4. October 30, 2009 at 10:58 PM

    Sigh…it’s so hard to find fresh curry leaves here…I miss the times when it was sold liberally in Singapore!

  5. October 31, 2009 at 6:07 AM

    One of my Malaysian friends used curry leaves to cook rice. Her curry rice is full of sweet flavour, not hot at all. Love it very much.

  6. October 31, 2009 at 7:07 AM

    This is great background info! I managed to find some fresh curry leaves to make Sri Lankan fish cakes recently. As you said, fresh is completely different to dried. They were in an Indian supermarket and I was told to freeze the rest of the bunch, rather than just let them dry. However, I still haven’t found a recipe to use the frozen leaves!

  7. admin
    October 31, 2009 at 7:45 AM

    Gera – I can find them here, but I have to say I was tired of walking by them thinking I’d like to use them but have n idea what in. No more!

    Jenn – Always trying to help. =) Felt, I could not be the only one in need of a primer.

    Carolyn – We’ll have to compare recipes at some point.

    Sophia – Maybe now that you are in SoCal. I thought I remembered seeing the leaves at Han Au Reum in Falls Church or Super H. You did mention you were going to Singapore this year. =)

    Christine – Great info. After reading various articles I want to use it in rice.

    Helen – I think I remember those cakes, I’ll have to add the link so folks have more ideas of what to make.

  8. October 31, 2009 at 8:12 AM

    Over the past year I have seen many recipes using curry leaves and of course, in MN – cannot find them anywhere. I have always been curious about them. This recipe looks wonderful. I love the taste of curry – and find it interesting that curry powder does not use the leaves!

  9. October 31, 2009 at 4:36 PM

    I’ve saw curry leaves frequently in SF but just never really knew how to cook with them. The eggplant recipe looks delicious- something I can see myself trying for dinner one of these evenings.

  10. October 31, 2009 at 6:21 PM

    My initial experiences with using curry leaves were all with the dried version and I didn’t much get what they were all about. Then I got fresh curry leaves and, my word, but there is a world of difference – I love them as part of a thick, wintry vegetable stew.

  11. October 31, 2009 at 6:41 PM

    I remember Helen’s use of them in her ‘Serendip’ post (along with Maldives fish flakes) and then, it seemed like curry leaves were popping up in so many recipes! I’d love to find some here in the Twin Cities but haven’t had much time to explore some of the Southeast Asian stores. But thanks for the great info and links – I’ll know what to look for and what to use them in!

  12. October 31, 2009 at 7:12 PM

    I’ve never seen or used curry leaves! If I had – I probably would not of bought them. But now, thanks to you, I’ll be sure to snatch them up when I see them! This potato and eggplant dish sounds so delicious!

  13. October 31, 2009 at 7:43 PM

    Great info as usual!I’ve never seen curry leaves!That potato dish sounds fantastic.Thank you so much for this wonderful blog and all that information :)

  14. October 31, 2009 at 9:02 PM

    I believe I’ve seen them very recently in Wegmans once but they were unlabeled and nobody could confirm that that’s what it was for sure. Hope Wegmans will have curry leaves again sometime soon, looking forward to trying them.

  15. admin
    November 1, 2009 at 7:47 AM

    Claudia – My SIL has the same problem, fingers crossed that someone at that great farmer’s market of yours will be able to bring some in

    Lisa – It is a great recipe and a personal favorite. I just got tired of passing by something I knew had to be tasty.

    DS – I always find it amazing, don’t know why I should what a difference fresh is to dried. I bet they went deliciously with all those spud recipes =)

    TN – I know I found it funny that when I was trying to find resources for folks to link to that the timing seemed to be clustered together. I guess that is a sure sign of a herd mentality, but in this case, I am all for it.

    Reeni – Hopefully you do, I’d love to see what sort of incredible connoction you develop.

    Erica = ah, thanks!

    Natasha – I swear Wegman’s is the source for about everything on the East Coast. I hope you can find some soon.

  16. November 5, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    Thanks for the clarification. We just have curry powder here and we call it just ‘curry’, so I was sometimes confused when I saw curry leaves in some recipes. As I love everything fresh and green, I would love to try these leaves.

  17. November 8, 2009 at 4:58 PM

    Since I started using curry leaves, I can never go back to not using them. Nothing tastes authentic any more without these fragrant leaves. Every time I visit my favorite Indian grocer, I always make sure I come home with a huge bag. They freeze well, although the longer they’re frozen the less aromatic they become. I even put them in my Thai curries even though we don’t use curry leaves in traditional Thai cooking.

  18. November 9, 2009 at 2:09 PM

    I have found opening up their flavor in the oil or ghee works wonderfully, even if dried, and in soups. At times since I was young I also wondered what bay leaves purpose was also!

    Reading about Indian cuisine over the years and working with South Indian families, I have come to believe that the curry leaves were named by foreign traders due to their fragrant smell, and were confused with traditional curry seasonings…

    I have some reading catch up to do over here!

  19. admin
    November 9, 2009 at 6:34 PM

    Zerrin – I love the fresh ones too, nice to know a bit more about them

    Leela – I agree! They are now a requirement.

    Chef E – agree, I like to make the oils aromatic with the herbs and that way the flavors better disperse. They are a lot of fun to work with.

  20. March 11, 2010 at 6:11 PM

    Enjoy reading this, thank you

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