The Misleading Curry Leaf
I recently received a letter from a reader joyfully announcing she had bought a curry leaf plant—so now she could dry the leaves to make curry powder. I hated to bust her bubble, but nonetheless felt it important to clarify that yes, curry leaves do have a curry-like flavor, but dried curry leaves do not a curry powder make.
Let me explain: Curry leaves, also known as kari leaves, are used in India, especially in the southern state of Kerala, and in Sri Lanka. Typically, the fresh leaves are pulled from their stems and thrown into hot oil and allowed to sizzle a few seconds. The flavored oil is poured over a dish as a finishing touch, or it may be the initial foundation for a recipe's main ingredients. The curry leaf flavor is a bit like a mild curry powder, but with a strong herb-like aroma and hints of bell pepper and citrus, and a pleasant, mild bitterness. The leaves are best fresh; dried leaves are pretty much tasteless, in the same way that dried cilantro is only barely flavorful.
Commercial curry powder, the yellow stuff sold in jars, is really a British concoction, a convenience-food so to speak. It's actually a blend of many spices—look at the label on a jar of commercial curry powder to see that it contains cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, and cardamom, among others (but never "curry leaves"). True Indians create "masalas" by grinding and mixing fresh spices just before use, to custom-fit each dish with intricate nuances of flavor.
Even though my reader's curry leaf plant isn't a source of curry powder, those powerful little leaves pack plenty of flavor on their own. I sizzle them in oil with mustard seeds, then pour the mixture over sliced tomatoes, dal, or I fry potatoes in it. You can also use the leaves raw, blending them until pulverized in a salad dressing, chutney, or as a sauce for fish or vegetables. Curry leaves add an irresistible flavor to bread doughs and fritters, or mince them up and mix with your favorite spice rub for roasting or grilling.
Profile: Curry Leaves
Appearance: Sold as stems, with about 20 leaves attached. Strip the leaves off as you would thyme. They're dark green and shaped like small bay leaves.
Storage: Place stems in between paper towels and seal in a zipper bag. Store in the crisper for as long as 2 weeks. Can also be frozen but will lose some flavor.
Where to Buy: Indian and some Asian markets sell the stems with leaves. Some specialty nurseries may sell the plant.
Plant: True curry leaf plants are "murraya koenigii," and are not to be confused with a silver-leafed "curry plant" which has a mild curry scent but is not for culinary use. The curry leaf plant thrives in tropical climates.
Kate's Global Kitchen for September, 2001:
09/01/01 Scoring Points
09/08/01 Last Blast Gazpacho: Tomato and Watermelon at Summer's End
09/15/01 Smokin' Rosemary
09/22/01 Winners Announced: Haiku of Food Contest
09/29/01 The Misleading Curry Leaf
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created September 2001