Cooking With Kurma

Kurma Dasa


Cooking With Kurma > Essays > Curry Leaf Heaven

Curry Leaf Heaven
By Kurma Dasa

curry leavesEver since I first tasted fresh curry leaves many years ago, I have been in love with their tantalising aroma and flavour. If I recall correctly, my first time was in the ubiquitous coconut chutney that I tasted while visiting South India’s temple town of Trivandrum. We ate dosa, idli, sambar and coconut chutney every day for a week, and although by the end I couldn't bear to face another idli or dosa, I still devoured bowls of coconut chutney laced with the fresh aromatic leaves.

The thin, shiny, dark-green leaves of the South-East Asian tree Murraya koenigii are as important to Asian food as bay leaves are to European. But the two should not be substituted. Curry leaves are highly aromatic when fresh, and their unmistakable aromatic taste is quite unique. Dried leaves are inferior, but sometimes that is all that is available. Personally I feel that if you don’t have curry leaves, either fresh or dry, there is no acceptable substitute.

At my home cooking classes, I especially love passing around a sprig of fresh leaves, newly plucked from my tree, and asking my students to crush a few leaves between their fingers and savour the aroma as the tenacious essential oils are released. The class usually groans in union at the delightful new sensation, and I groan with them, even though I’ve done it all so many times before.

Used especially in South Indian kitchens, curry leaves are generally sauteed in oil with mustard seeds and asafetida and added to dals, fresh coconut chutney or vegetable dishes. I always strip the leaves from their stalk before frying, and sometimes tear and crush them between my fingers to release more of their essential oils.

When I cook, I sometimes throw in whole sprigs of leaves still attached to their branches, and then retrieve them before serving the dish. Either way, when the leaves are fried in hot oil, a customary way to use them, remember to stand back as they will crackle violently as soon as they hit the oil.

Curry leaves are mostly used in South India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius and Fiji – in other words everywhere Indian migrants have brought their food culture. The curry tree is native to the sub-tropical forests of Asia, but as I write this, I am glancing out my window and looking lovingly at my two curry leaf trees in my Perth garden. They are quite healthy, but I do have to be careful not to pick too many stalks of leaves while the tree is still young.

A year ago my tree underwent a period of great trauma due to over-picking, and I had to nurse it back to good health through abstinence (no picking leaves!) and a lot of devotion. I would daily talk to my plant and encourage it to recover. Don’t laugh. Plants know you’re there and respond to encouraging words. If you don’t believe me, read The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

A few growing hints: When you see berries appearing at the very tips of the branches, best to pluck them off. This technique encourages new leaf growth, and also applies to most other culinary herbs like basil, for instance. Flower growth generally slows leaf growth. In the case of the curry tree, if you leave the berries on they will turn into a crown of beautiful, sweet-smelling cream-coloured flowers, but the tree’s energy will be mainly directed in growing the flowers, and the leaf growth will slow down. If you're growing the tree for strictly culinary reasons, best to pluck off everything that isn’t a leaf.

If you would like to grow your own curry leaf plants, the best is to visit your local Asian store and see whether they sell the small plants in pots. I purchased my 2 trees as tiny plants no taller than 10cm tall a few years ago at my local Asian supermarket. Now they are 75cm tall and bursting with health.

You could also try your local plant nursery, but some words of warning here: If you ask for a curry plant at a Western nursery, chances are you will be sold a herb called ‘curry plant’. Alas, this not the true curry leaf plant Murraya koenigii, but an imposter called Helichrysum italicum. It looks nothing like a curry leaf plant, nor does it taste even remotely like it.

Some people I know don’t like the mouth-feel of cooked curry leaves in a dish, and go to great pains to pick them out while they eat and place them at the side of the plate. I find this a touch amusing, but still, in deference to them, I suggest a couple of alternative ways to cook curry leaves. One is to cook the whole stalk, as described above. The other is to blend the leaves with a few spoons of water in a blender, and use this puree in your cooking. It works especially well in coconut chutney (click here for the recipe), although the puree is added at the beginning with the chilies, rather than fried at the end.

If you haven’t got access to a curry leaf tree, but would like to cook with the leaves, here's how: Visit your local Asian store and look in the refrigerated section. If you live in a place where fresh leaves are accessible, you will probably find small plastic bags with a handful of sprigs inside for a reasonable price. A few words of advice here: if you don’t use them often, only buy what you need. They keep a couple of weeks in the fridge, but then they start to look a little sad. They don’t freeze well – after thawing they are black and translucent with a noticeable lack of flavour. They do dry well, but then the flavour is also inferior. My motto with curry leaves: fresh is best.

So if you haven’t tried curry leaves before, now’s the time to start. If you have, and you enjoyed the experience, do it all again. Welcome to curry leaf heaven.


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