Fresh curry leaves, plucked in a Hindu family's garden in Kerala, lend a pleasingly
bitter edge to fish, coconut and vegetable curries. They have nothing to do with
Fresh curry leaves are one of the more mysterious ingredients in Indian cooking.
These green, almond-shaped leaves have nothing to do with curry powder, of course. Nor are they related to the lacy, pale grey curry plant that appears at herb stands in early summer.
But curry and curry leaves do have one thing in common: the word “curry” which derives from the Tamil kari, meaning soup or sauce. And it all makes sense when you discover that the fresh leaves are widely used to season the fish, coconut and vegetable curries of South India.
Curry leaves actually come from a small tree, Murraya koenigii, that grows wild in India and Sri Lanka. It is a member of the vast Rutaceae family which includes numerous exotic citrus fruits, like the bergamot, kaffir lime and pommelo. Oddly enough, it also includes the prickly ash tree which yields the lemony-tasting Sichuan peppercorn. As I said, it’s a big family. But the small black fruit of the curry tree is poisonous.
I first saw the tree—really a bushy shrub--growing in Kerala in the backyard of a large Hindu family compound. It was in bloom, bearing clusters of pretty white flowers, but the shiny sharply pointed oval leaves are the real prize. Crush them and they release a vaguely unsettling aroma: for a brief moment, they are powerfully aromatic. As Gernot Katzer suggests, there may even be a faint whiff of tangerine. But that is promptly swept away by the earthy, acrid smell of freshly poured asphalt, or possibly scorched brake pads.
Naturally this not how they taste in cooking. Curry leaves are commonly sizzled in hot oil, often with mustard seeds, and then simmered with fish or vegetables and other spices. Their slight bitterness gaves backbone to the other flavors, or what Amit Ghosh, executive chef at the Taj Malabar, describes as a “strong, muscular, appetizing” taste. There is no substitute: if you cannot find fresh curry leaves, simply leave them out.
Here in the U.S. stems of fresh curry leaves are mainly sold in Indian grocery stores. Look for them in plastic bags in the refrigerated case, often for as little as 99 cents. They will keep in your own refrigerator for a few days; after that you can freeze them for a month or two. All the flavor is concentrated in the volatile oils—consequently dried curry leaves are completely tasteless.
In The Indian Spice Kitchen, Monisha Bharadwaj observes that curry leaves are sometimes removed from a dish before serving. She cites an old Indian saying which “likens a person who is only wanted for a particular use and is discarded after this end is met, to a curry leaf, which enhances a dish but is eventually discarded.”
For a recipe using curry leaves, see Red Snapper Curry with Kashmiri Chilies, Ginger and Coconut Milk. See also Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts by Ammini Ramachandran for a host of Kerala Hindu vegetarian recipes that use curry leaves as a key seasoning.