First, to be clear, curry leaves come from a large shrub that can grow into a tall tree (Murraya koenigii) and should not be confused with the curry plant, a shrub with dusty grey-green leaves and yellow flowers that flourishes in dry rocky parts of the garden.
Sniffing a curry leaves plant is like sticking your nose in a jar of Madras curry powder. Curry leaves are more subtle, more intriguing, and their aroma is complex – I don’t know anyone who can put their finger on it exactly, though I’ll try: crushed lemon leaf, dried tangerine peel, tobacco box, fenugreek seed, cumin seed, mace, rocket and bacon. True! Like a plump pork and bacon sausage cooked slowly in butter with all its gorgeous sticky goo gathering in the edges of the pan, to which is added citrus, more than a whiff of smoke and secret spices and herbs. Yes, it’s oh so captivating, but scent alone is not its definitive characteristic: it is somewhat bitter to taste, warming in the chest, savoury and spicy.
The almond-shaped leaves are used in much of Southeast Asia and are a mainstay of southern Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine. They’re usually considered a spice rather than a herb, though there is no right or wrong definition, and they can be used at the beginning of cooking, or to finish off a dish. The leaves can be toasted or fried with spices at the start of making a curry, and they’re often discarded before serving – it seems many people don’t like chewing the leaves, just the flavour they impart.
“ The leaves can be toasted or fried with spices”
Other uses for curry leaves include grinding the fresh or toasted leaves to a paste with coconut and spices to make fresh chutney, mixing them with spices for a dry rub, or adding to a liquid marinade.
It’s easy enough to grow your own shrub in warmer parts of New Zealand. You do need to consider where you plant it, not just because it needs rich and well-drained soil and lots of sun, but because the small black berries it produces are poisonous. That aside, it is a good tree to have in the garden as it deters bugs, and if you give it space to grow, it will give you access to curry leaves all year round.
FOUR ways with…
1 FRY with spices for a flavour boost. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a sauté pan. Add 6 stems curry leaves, 2 tiny crushed dried chillies, ½ teaspoon each cumin and black mustard seeds and sizzle for 30 seconds. Add 1 thinly sliced clove garlic and sizzle for 1 minute. Pour over dahl, rice or meat.
2 GRIND to a paste with garlic, ginger and oil, freeze in ice cube trays and use to flavour curries.
3 TOAST leaves in a dry pan until they curl. Use as is, or crush to a powder.
4 LEAVE curry leaves in dishes; I find they give a visual clue to a meal.
HOW TO FREEZE YOUR LEAVES
Curry leaves (kadi patta) are more fragrant when fresh, losing much of their potency when dried. They can be frozen, but ensure they’re clean and dry (wet leaves will freeze together). Remove leaves from stems and freeze on a lined tray. Transfer to a container and use as required straight from the freezer. If you intend using them in wet curries, freezing the leaves on the stem is quicker; icy particles will dissolve in the liquid.