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Spice: Curry Leaves

I have been waiting a long time to try cooking with this particular item as I have countless recipes in my Indian cookery book collection that make use of these interesting leaves. Last summer, I found some in a grocery store in Ottawa but, unfortunately, by the time I got the leaves home they had blackened on me and I had to chuck them out. Just the other day though, I found them in or local store and I just had to buy them. I was a little reluctant to do so as I am currently only a few days away from another weeklong trip on Court circuit and, as noted, I know from bitter experience already that these things do not have a very long shelf life. Luckily though, Tahmina over at Kolpona Cuisine tells me that they can be frozen successfully so I’ll do that with the bulk of my purchase, have the remainder to have a look at and, maybe if time permits, even try a quick culinary experiment…

The leaves come from a tree native to India with the botanical name Murraya koenigii. They are most widely used in Indian cookery, where they are known, in Hindi, as ‘Neem’ leaves, but they are also used in the neighboring countries of Burma and Cambodia. I am not sure how the name curry leaves came about, particularly since, as source after source confirms, the taste is not remotely like any spice blend that most would recognize as a ‘curry powder’.

The leaves, as you can see, are a lovely, glossy dark green on the upper surface, but much paler and flat in hue on the underside. The size of the individual leaves varies in size, in the package I bought, from about a half-inch to two inches in length, but I have seen pictures where the leaves appeared to be at least three to four inches long.

The aroma of the fresh leaves has a curious property in that up close it is fairly mild and really doesn’t smell like much other being somewhat like rhododendron or laurel leaves. From a little further away, or even through plastic wrapping, however, another, more assertive quality is apparent. It is not an easy smell to describe, but the best I can do is to liken it to a cross between coconut husk and very dark rye toast.

The taste of the raw leaf is also strangely ‘fractured’ in the sense that it develops in odd fits and starts. At first, the unusual ‘toasted bread’ quality of the aroma is apparent and then it quickly dissipates and is replaced by a bitter, arugula like flavor. Almost immediately this, in turn, mellows to a grassy taste and some faint acid notes develop. Many sources I have read claim that there is a citrus like quality to the leaves but I have to say that this was not apparent to me. The chemical compound limonene is one of the aromatic components they contain (and this is supposed to have a lemony-orange taste and aroma) but either this substance was contained at low levels in the product I purchased, or else I was not particularly sensitive to it. Afterwards though, almost five or ten minutes later, I experienced a slight numbing on my tongue and lips (rather like the effect of Sichuan Pepper actually) and, while I have never read of this in other sources, I didn’t consume anything else in the meantime, so I can only ascribe the effect to the curry leaves. Possibly, and I can only speculate here, that may well be a function of the limonene.

Now, on to the leaves in cooked preparations…

In Indian cookery, the leaves seem to be used mostly in what I would term ‘wet’ dishes; that is, soup or stew-like preparations like vegetarian dals or meat curries. Sometimes they are chopped finely, especially when added in the initial frying of flavoring ingredients like onions, but they are also added whole in the same way that western dishes include bay leaves.

To test the qualities of the cooked leaf, I wanted to try a dish that included no other flavorings so I simply boiled up a quarter-cup of rice along with a dozen or so leaves and just a pinch of little salt. To be honest, I rather expected the result to be somewhat bland after my experience with the raw leaf but, to my surprise, the taste was really quite remarkable. Not only were all the flavors of the raw leaf present to an enhanced degree, the elusive citrus quality I have read about also made a definite, albeit mild, appearance.

Anyway, to sum everything up, these leaves, while uninteresting raw, and thus not much use in salads or the like, can add a nice depth of flavor to various dishes when cooked. They are not particularly powerful in the same way that other spices are, and should only be used with this caveat in mind, but they are mostly definitely worth investigating if you haven’t experienced them as yet. On that note, however, I should add that only the fresh leaves are worth using and, when dried they are virtually tasteless. It is possible to buy commercially packaged leaves this way (and I can’t believe that manufacturers would market such a useless product) but, please, take my word for it, and don’t waste your money on anything but the fresh…

 

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I found them at Loblaws but the package is huge, like yours so I’ve hestitated buying it; it’s good to know that they freeze well.

    July 17, 2012
  2. Last summer I added it to my herb selection I was purchasing at the local greenhouse. I planted it in a large pot and ended up having enough curry leaves to supply every Indian restaurant in the lower mainland. I must say it was wonderful having this endless supply. Virginia

    July 17, 2012
  3. I adore Curry leaves and yes they do freeze very well. I’m lucky that I can use them fresh too as I have three small plants-two on the kitchen window sill and one in the greenhouse. Unfortunately my Burmese cats also love them and often will have a sneaky nibble-however I always know as there is that distinctive waft of curry leaf plant as I walk into the kitchen afterwards!!

    July 17, 2012
  4. Your curry leaves look so fresh and beautiful and I love your detailed taste explanation of a curry leaf and its taste.
    I learned a trick from one of my Thai friends. If you fold a curry leave or a keffir lime leaf in half and remove the vein and allow the oils to come out your dishes have added flavor before cooking and such.

    July 17, 2012
  5. This was so informative.. I will be on the look out for curry leaves, but I’m pretty certain I haven’t seen them here. How cool that you could find those! I’m on the hunt now!!

    July 17, 2012
  6. I was thinking that they looked very much like bay leaves. Thanks for the tip about freezing and for using fresh, not dried!

    July 17, 2012
  7. Next time they blacken, don’t worry about it. Just seal it in a ziplock bag and store it in the freezer. The best thing about curry leaves is even if it dries up, it retains the flavor. In fact, sometimes, my mother dries them up on purpose to make this spicy powder we mix with rice and eat.
    Oh yumm!

    July 19, 2012

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