The Goodness Behind Curry Leaves
I wish these wonderfully delicate leaves had a different name. The amount of confusion their common name causes can be maddening for cooks (and spice merchants). In fact very few classic recipes for curry, the dish, call for them. What the fresh leaves offer is a nutty fragrance and flavor best held for lighter fare. This curry leaves is used as an aromatic complement. When they are crushed in the palm of my hand, the smell reminds me of fresh nuts. Although it dissipates rapidly to leave behind a mildly bitter taste.
The dried leaves hold little of the original flavor. So this curry leaf should be sought fresh in the produce sections of Indian groceries. The pointed leaves are half the size of bay laurel and more elongated. The younger shoots have more potency, and they can be beaten into a paste as in the condiments and curry pastes of southern India and Southeast Asia.
Curry leaves are sold both as intact branches and as “destemmed” leaves; I prefer the former, as they seem to give you a bit more shelf life. The leaves tend to curl upon themselves as they dry, so look for entirely flat leaves and a consistent matte green color throughout.
Darkening blotches are a sign of decay, and such leaves should be avoided. The curry plant is a heat lover, and while its main harvests come from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, and the Middle East, it’s cultivated, albeit on a much smaller scale, just about anywhere that has a warm climate. Growers in the United States are mostly in Southern California, but hothouse cultivation allows most major urban markets to have a nearby source.
How it is been used
My home-gardening friends tell me that once started, the plants are prolific enough to make a useful-sized crop for their own kitchens. Perhaps the most common use of curry leaf is as a finishing aromatic component (rather than a base ingredient) in the curries of Central and South India. In those same kitchens, you see it used as Western cooks would bay leaf, in stocks and soups.
Vegetarian cuisines from the same regions use the leaf heavily, as the flavor melds well with the lighter fare. Classic dishes using peas, dal, lentils, and even homemade paneer cheese all find curry leaf. Introduced to lift the accompanying gravies and sauces out of the mundane and into the lighter, more complex palate.
Aroma of Curry Leaves
Since aromatics are important in what curry leaves bring your dish. They should typically be added late in the cooking process to preserve that character. You may want to gain the bitter character by cooking longer, but this will be at the expense of the aroma. It’s not uncommon for stocks and soups to call for two measures of curry leaf, one “for the boil” and one “for the finish.”
Removal of the spent leaf after cooking is at the cook’s discretion and is strictly an aesthetic choice. One of the best descriptions of curry leaf I’ve heard came from a young customer one summer afternoon. A girl of five years of age had turned her nose up at just about every smell in the shop. However the prompting of her mother to sniff curry leaves, she exclaimed, “It’s a peanut butter plant!” I can’t possibly improve on that assessment.