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I Spice: Curry leaves

Curry leaves. (Monica Bhide)

All together now: Curry leaves have nothing to do with curry powder.

Once more, so we don’t forget: Curry leaves have nothing to do with curry powder.

Recipe Included

I apologize for starting this way. But I have never heard of a more misunderstood ingredient than the poor curry leaf (kari leaf). It is a gorgeous, aromatic, shiny dark green leaf used in Indonesian, Indian, Sri Lankan and Malay cuisines, to name a few. In my opinion, its lemony fragrance and the taste it adds to curries is addictive.

Unfortunately, curry leaves have no substitute.

I have found nothing that adequately duplicates their flavor. (Commercial curry powder, which was created by the British sometime in the 1700s, is a mix of spices and herbs such as cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and coriander.)

See? One has nothing to do with the other.

I spoke with Indian cooking legend Julie Sahni last week about curry leaves, and the first words out of her mouth were: “Curry leaves are this decade’s lemon grass! People are using them more and more, and finding out how amazing their flavor can be.”

She also cleared up the misperception that, in India, curry leaves are used only in southern Indian cooking: “On the contrary, they is used by the Gujaratis in the west and even as far north as Himachal Pradesh.”

How to use these beauties? First, remember that unlike bay leaves, these leaves are actually edible. Now for some ideas:

* Remove the leaves from the stem to use them (discard the stems). Add the leaves to vegetables, lentils, meat dishes, beverages and chutneys as you make them.

* Sizzle them in hot oil to flavor the oil, then add your choice of vegetables or cooked rice or meats directly to the leaves and oil.

* Sizzle the leaves in hot oil along with other spices (such as black mustard seeds), then strain and pour the hot seasoned oil over a prepared dish or a bowl of plain yogurt.

* Sahni shared a wonderful way to use them with sea scallops: Marinate the scallops in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. Sear them in a hot cast-iron skillet. To serve, top with thinly sliced fresh curry leaves and a squeeze of lemon juice.

* Another Sahni suggestion: Heat some oil and add a few curry leaves. Once the leaves begin to sizzle, remove them from the heat. Use the oil to brush over prepared breads, or brush on a piece of plain fish before you saute it.

* If you want to serve a vegetarian meal, start with this tomato-lentil soup and include this side dish, Carrot Puttu.

* Or add a spoonful of Vadouvan, a French take on an Indian spice blend, to a meat or poultry stew.

Curry leaves can be found in the fresh produce section of your local Indian grocer and at Korean grocers. Buy leaves that are bright, dark green and shiny and don’t show signs of browning or bruising. Sahni and I both lamented the increasing price of the leaf: $1 for just a couple of stalks. Used to be, you could buy a big box from H-mart for less than $5, but recently they have become a touch pricier.

While these leaves best used fresh, they can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. If the leaves begin to brown, discard them. Use your nose to determine freshness: Crush a small leaf between your fingers and smell it. If there is no lemony aroma, the leaf has lost its potency and should be discarded.

In order to preserve the leaves and not waste what you don’t immediately use, you can freeze them, but only if you vacuum-pack them to prevent oxidation, which makes them slimy, dark and ruins the flavor.) Better yet, Sahni suggests placing any leftover leaves in a wicker basket in a cool part of your house -- any place without direct sunlight -- and allowing the leaves to air-dry naturally. She says the leaves will dry completely in three to five days. Then, place them in a resealable plastic food storage bag until needed.

You can crumble the dried leaves on salads or add the whole leaves to curries. Sahni promises they will be just as aromatic and flavorful as the fresh ones. These dried leaves will last up to a year.

Curry leaves are easy to grow at home, but a word of warning when buying seeds: Ask for seeds of curry leaves (Murraya koenigii) -- not a curry plant. A “curry plant” (Helichrysum italicum) has no relation to curry leaves.

-- Monica Bhide

Julie Sahni’s Hot Curry Leaf Potatoes
6 to 8 servings

Julie Sahni's Hot Curry Leaf Potatoes. (Monica Bhide)

For a lovely presentation, use potatoes of different colors for this dish.

2 pounds medium (unpeeled) fingerling potatoes, scrubbed clean (try a mix of French, Russian Banana and Purple Peruvian)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste (plus more for the cooking water)
2 pure red chili powder, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon asafetida (a strong-smelling powdered spice often added to Indian curries; optional)
Juice from 1 or 2 limes (1 1/2 tablespoons)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds
8 to 10 curry leaves

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, the cover and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and cool to room temperature.

Cut the cooled potatoes in half lengthwise and place in a large bowl. Add the salt, chili powder, turmeric, asafetida, if using, and the lime juice; mix to coat evenly.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the mustard seeds and the curry leaves. As soon as the mustard seeds begin to sputter, add the potatoes. Cook for a few minutes, constantly turning the potatoes over with a spatula, until well browned.

Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 8): 139 calories, 3 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 413 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  October 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, curry leaves, recipes  
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For those of us interested in growing it, thank you SO MUCH for providing the botanical name so we can source the plant accurately.

And thanks for the many suggestions on how to use it.


Posted by: rowandk | October 23, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

I freeze curry leaves (kari patha) in ziplock freezer bags all the time and i have never had them turn dark or slimy. i just add them to my dish (either to the tadka or whatever) and they are perfectly fine, i've never had a problem.

my mom has a HUGE curry leave plant in her kitchen, so i've never had to purchase them. if you know someone with a plant (most south indians have them in their homes), just cut a stalk and plant it yourself, it will grow beautifully from there.

Posted by: spd279 | October 30, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

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