I've always found it an odd sight to watch — the way people in my family would methodically take one crisp, green leaf, at a time, from the gravy or rice and leave it at the plate's outer rim. Like some kind of ritual, I've only seen them do this when they ate anything that had curry leaves, a kind of herb, in it.
They simply discard the leaves. The very leaves that are almost symbolic of Indian cuisine that transform simple fried chicken, give zing to coconut chutney or make for a dark and flavourful curry oil.
Like most people who don’t have a curry tree or plant at home, I often found these leaves on thin, rubbery sprigs that bend without breaking, in plastic bags in any grocery store in India or on push cart vendors who would hand me a large bunch of this dark green foliage.
Even after I moved to the UAE, there seemed to be a surplus of these leaves at local groceries, as the leaves catered to the large South Asian diaspora in the region. Perhaps that’s why most people take these leaves for granted, when it comes to eating them.
This changed for me after I found myself standing in awe of a full-grown curry tree in a friend’s backyard, recently. It made me wonder how I had missed such a large tree during my last visit, which was about two years ago. That’s when my friend explained that her curry tree grew to its adult height in about a year’s time. She had only sowed some seeds and watered them regularly, just until the tree was capable of looking after itself.
Standing under the curry tree meant taking in a lungful of its crispy fragrance as the dark leaves rustled ever so gently on the branches high above. It was only natural that I resolved to give these little leaves a bit more respect, the next time I would eat them.
Where do the leaves come from?
Curry leaves belong to the curry tree, which is said to be native to India and Sri Lanka. In these parts, the tree is also known as sweet neem. As we stood under the shade of her large curry tree, my friend and I guessed it might get its other name because from afar, the curry tree looks similar to another Indian native, the neem.
Unlike neem leaves, which are known for their bitter taste, curry leaves are crisp and fragrant, and their clove-like scent is often cited as a prime ingredient in Indian cuisine.
Some describe the taste as a combination of a black pepper and basil and others say it tastes like cinnamon. To me, it tastes almost astringent, a flavour that fills my nostrils with a sensation similar to how eating lemongrass and mint would feel like.
It’s quite hard to capture the exact flavour. However, curry leaves are a savoury ally in the kitchen. They are more flavourful and aromatic than many other herbs, yet they're not big enough to make an overwhelming statement. At the same time, their flavour works best when combined with others.
Curry leaves are so fragrant that you can tell if it is missing in any dish it is usually prepared with.
“In India, especially South Indian cuisine, curry leaves are an everyday ingredient in food. The first thing goes inside in many authentic South Indian recipe is curry leaves. Curry leaves are so fragrant that you can tell if it is missing in any dish it is usually prepared with. My family and I love the flavour of curry leaves and we can’t prepare our traditional everyday cooking, without it, irrespective of the course and whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner,” says Rajeshwari Vijayanand, an Indian resident and food blogger, who is based in Singapore.
She explains that while curry leaves are native to India, it is also used in Sri Lankan other South Asian cuisine like Malay food. Even Chinese dishes like salted egg prawn use curry leaves, she adds.
The many ways curry leaves find their way into dishes
Vijayanand explains that most often, curry leaves are a part of tempering ingredients, a process that marks the beginning or end of making south Indian food. Curry leaves are also used as garnish, which makes a significant difference in flavour. They can also be a main ingredient of certain dishes.
However, a common way to consume them would be to deep fry curry leaves in any vegetable oil, along with other southern spices. Steeped in oil, these leaves are spluttered briefly to impart the flavour to any dish.
“I make a dry spice mix, with curry leaves, which can be an accompaniment for breakfast or lunch along with steamed rice. In fact many spice blends and masala powders have traces of curry leaves in it. We also make rice, chutney and gravies, in which curry leaves are ground to paste before using them,” Vijayanand says.
According to Rajni Ram, a food blogger based in Chennai, India, the leaves are not just for flavouring or tempering.
There are dishes dedicated specifically to these leaves, especially in south India. Karuvepilai Podi or curry leaves’ powder is fragrant and spicy, best enjoyed by mixing it with hot rice and a dollop of ghee.
“There are dishes dedicated specifically to these leaves, especially in south India. Karuvepilai Podi or curry leaves’ powder is fragrant and spicy, best enjoyed by mixing it with hot rice and a dollop of ghee. Another dish is Karivepilai Kuzhambu, which is a thick curry made by grinding and cooking the leaves in tamarind pulp with spices.”
Then there’s curry leaves oil too, which has some non-culinary uses. According to Ram, curry leaves oil is good for hair growth, a common belief in South Asia.
Curry leaves oil - how to make it?
Vijayanand says that you can also drizzle few drops of curry leaves oil in Indian curries for a flavourful touch like how we use other herbal oils. She shares a simple recipe to make the oil:
Take 1 cup of curry leaves in a blender.
Grind to a coarse powder. It is okay if it is not finely ground.
Heat 1 cup of virgin coconut oil in a deep dish.
Add the ground curry leaves to it over low heat.
Let it steep in it for five minutes or until it stops bubbling.
Cool it down completely and strain using a cheese cloth or a pure thin cotton cloth.
Squeeze the oil well and store in an air tight bottle. It will be good for up to a month.
Why curry leaves are good for you
As a child I would copy the eating habits of those around me and I’d never eat the curry leaves in my meals, until my mother would step in to make sure I finished them.
“They’re good for health,” she’d often tell me, without explaining why. Somehow that would be enough encouragement for me eat the leftover leaves. It turns out, like most things, mum was right, as curry leaves come packed with medicinal value.
“Curry leaves are well known in functional nutrition; as they have many health benefits,” says Dubai-based Armenian expat Dr Jane Darajkian, who is a dietitian from Open Minds Centre.
“Extracts from curry leaves controls and reduces blood sugar levels and protects you against symptoms related to diabetes. Some of the benefits of curry leaves include getting relief from pain as the leaves contain anti-inflammatory properties. The leaves also protect your immune system as they have antibacterial properties.
Extracts from curry leaves controls and reduces blood sugar levels and protects you against symptoms related to diabetes. Some of the benefits of curry leaves include getting relief from pain as the leaves contain anti-inflammatory properties.
“Curry leaves also help you lose weight and control cholesterol levels as the leaves contain carbazole alkaloids, a kind of organic compound that is found in medicinal plants. Curry leaves are rich in vitamins A, B, C and B2. They aid digestion.”
Having an excessive amount of curry leaves might leave some mild side effects such as nausea, diarrhoea, stomach upset, dizziness, Dr Darajkian cautions.
Then why do we leave curry leaves on our plate
Medicinal properties of the leaves make them an indispensable ingredient in Rajni Ram’s diet, who explains why most people, like the ones in my family leave them aside while eating a meal that has curry leaves in them.
Although curry leaves have a sweet pungent aroma, they taste slightly bitter after being cooked, and that's why most people avoid chewing the leaves.
“Although curry leaves have a sweet pungent aroma, they taste slightly bitter after being cooked, and that's why most people avoid chewing the leaves. In my family, we try to chew a few leaves from the curry, if not all,” she adds.
One way to encourage people to eat these leaves would be to grab fresh curry leaves from your kitchen garden. These plants are easy to grow and maintain in any pot at home. In fact the home-grown leaves are more flavourful and tasty to eat, Vijayanand explains to me over the phone as I quietly agree to her notion because it worked for me.
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