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).
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.")
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.
Did we miss your favorite way to use curry leaves? Tell us in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom