Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Curry leaves are an herb, and they are not related to curry powder. Curry powder is a blend of different spices which may or (far more likely) may not include curry leaves. In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson writes of curry powder: “the kind sold commercially represents an attempt by the British manufactures to provide in ready-made form a spice mixture corresponding to those uses in South India.” Powder and leaves are not, in any way, a substitute for one another.
To add to the confusion, curry leaf plants and curry plants are different, too; if you're looking to grow your own curry leaves, the former is what you want. Linguistic sticklers be advised: The curry leaf plant has pinnate leaves (1, below), so when a recipe calls for a certain number of curry leaves, it’s actually calling for said number of curry leaflets (2, below).
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So What Are Curry Leaves, Then?
Curry leaves are a part of the same family as citrus fruits. Their glossy green leaves are very aromatic, and they have a unique flavor all their own. There is a citrus element, along with something else that’s hard to put your finger on—some say asafoetida, and others anise. In her book Classic Indian Cooking, Julie Sahni describes the leaves as having “a bitterish taste and a sweetish, pungent aroma almost like lemon grass."
Needless to say, they are unlike anything else in your spice rack, so it's no surprise that Monica Bhide divides her life “into B.C. and A.C.—before curry leaves and after I first ate them” (and you just might, too). Curry leaf newbies take note: Some preparations will call for curry leaves to be removed from a dish, but it's fine when they don't—the leaves are completely edible. (Sorry to deprive you of fun games like "Find the Missing Bay Leaf.")
Where Can I Buy Curry Leaves?
Though they are becoming more readily available in grocery stores all over, fresh curry leaves are admittedly not the easiest ingredient to find. You can buy them at Indian or world food markets, such as Patel Brothers and Kalustyan's. (The latter is where our books editor Brinda Ayer likes to buy them.) If you don't have any of those near you, then you could always order them online.
How to Use Curry Leaves
The question of what to do with fresh curry leaves pops up from timetotime on our Hotline, and over the years you all have shared a number of your favorite ways to use them:
Amanda suggests picking up Maya Kaimal's book Savoring the Spice Coast of India—"lots of recipes call for curry leaves," and saving some for later by freezing them. When using frozen curry leaves, RobertaJ uses the spine of her chef's knife to "bruise" them a bit first.
Panfusine offers up a simple relish recipe: "1 cup curry leaves, 1/4 cup fresh ginger, juice of 1 lime, toasted cumin, 2 green chiles (adjust as per taste), and salt to taste—process these in a food processor until smooth." Enjoy with toasted crostini, if, like Panfusine, you have a "crazy palate.”
Pauljoseph has a lot of ideas: "Whole sprigs of fresh curry leaves are often quickly fried (because they can burn in seconds) in ghee or oil with other Indian spices, such as mustard seeds and cumin, and then stirred into any curry. They're delicious with chopped tomatoes or fresh corn kernels. Try grinding the leaves with coconut, chilies, and tamarind to make a chutney." And that's not all he has to share—multiple community members point to pauljoseph’s recipes as a source for curry leaf cooking inspiration.
MaryMaryCulinary says: "I do a lot of South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking, and I am always throwing a sprig into something. However, I buy them in large bags, so I was excited to find this curry leaf sambol recipe as it uses a cup of the leaves. It's delicious with rice and I love it on egg hoppers."