** This story first ran on NPR’s Kitchen Window”
I basically divide my life into B.C. and A.C. — before curry leaves and after I first ate them. Curry leaves, popularly known in India as kariveppilai, karivepaaku orkari patta, are aromatic and flavorful leaves that can change the taste of a dish quite dramatically by adding a pungent lemony flavor. I have found no herb that adequately duplicates their flavor. Although I jokingly call them the culinary essence of my youth, today I use them in my dishes all the time.
I am from the northern part of India, where curry leaves are not commonly found (although a few northern cuisines do use the leaf). But when I moved to the southern part of India in 1986 to go to engineering school, my tastes were changed forever.
Curry leaves are an integral part of southern Indian cuisine. I vaguely remembered eating them in some southern dishes back home, but nothing prepared me for the pungent, lime-lemony taste of fresh curry leaves in ways that south Indian friends used them.
The leaves showed up in rice dishes, vegetable sides, lentil broths, drinks and curries. A few years after engineering school, I married into a western Indian family, and my mother-in-law was a big fan of curry leaves. Her dried curry leaf chutney recipe even won first prize at a local contest.
Let me clear up one misconception: Curry leaves have nothing to do with curry powder. Nothing at all. Curry powder is ground spices such as cinnamon, turmeric and coriander. It may or may not include curry leaves.
Curry leaves can be found in the fresh produce section of Indian or Asian markets. Some even sell the entire plant. Plants also are available online. If you’re after the plant, ask for curry leaves (Murraya koenigii), not a curry plant (Helichrysum italicum). They are unrelated.
Buy leaves that are bright, dark green without signs of browning or bruising. Fresh curry leaves can last up to two weeks in the fridge. To make them last longer, air-dry them and store in an airtight container.
Though they look similar, unlike bay leaves, curry leaves are edible. Traditionally, curry leaves are used in multiple ways. First remove the leaves from the stem. You can add the leaves at the beginning of a recipe, sizzling them in hot oil and then adding ingredients such as vegetables, cooked basmati rice or poultry. As the final seasoning to a dish, the leaves are sizzled in hot oil along with other spices such as black mustard seeds, and the hot seasoned oil is poured over a prepared dish — for example, a bowl of plain yogurt or stewed lentils.
On a recent visit to India, I found curry leaves in breads and cocktails, and I thought it could not get better than that.
But it did. In a new grocery store in Bangalore, I found an insanely amazing powder of dried curry leaves (perfect as a garnish for a martini or a pick-me-up for boring boiled potatoes). The powder tasted like curry leaves on steroids. It was like falling in love all over again.
Curry Leaves Mojito