Food & Wine

Curry leaves form the soul of Southern Indian cuisine

Photo Courtesy Of Gitika BavejaCurry leaves, above, fresh or dried, are an integral part of Southern Indian cuisine.

Curry leaves are as important to Southern Indian cuisine as bay leaves are to food from Northern India. Curry leaves, either fresh or dried, are usually the first ingredient added to the small amount of oil in which a dish is cooked.

This fragrant herb looks like a small, shiny lemon or bay leaf, and has a pungent curry fragrance. Most Indian markets sell fresh curry leaves in sealed plastic bags for approximately a dollar. They keep very well, but if you will not use the whole amount within a couple of weeks, the remaining leaves can be refrigerated in an airtight container for as long as two weeks. Choose leaves that are bright green with no sign of yellowing or wilting. Curry leaf is the parsley of Southern India, an herb that cooks use by the handful and that scents almost every savory dish from there. If you travel to Southern India, you are bound to return addicted.

Bay Area markets stock curry leaf year-round. I would not recommend drying curry leaves, as they lose their aroma and flavor once they’re dried. To preserve the fresh leaves, if you must, grind them in a food processor with a little olive oil, while they still have flavor, and freeze the paste in tablespoon amounts. This provides a much better flavor than dried leaves.

Curry leaves can be used in any Southern Indian sauce, from soupy lentil purees to chutneys and seafood curries. They also boost the fragrance of vegetable stir-fries and potato snacks.

Most Southern Indian recipes call for tossing a fistful of fresh curry leaves into hot oil, along with whole spices like dried red chili and fenugreek, cumin and mustard seeds. The leaves sputter instantly in the hot oil, which draws out their aroma. For some dishes, this kind of tempering is completed before ingredients like coconut milk, vegetables, fish or rice are added – after the aromatics release their fragrance. For other dishes, the fried curry leaves and popped spices provide a final tempering, poured over soupy lentils, just before serving.

Although curry leaves are tender when fresh, Indians often do not eat them but will pick them out of a dish and set them aside. Indians believe firmly in the medicinal attributes of this pungent herb. It is thought to have antibacterial and antifungal properties.

An easy and delicious recipe using fresh curry leaves is coconut chutney. It goes with any seafood curry or as an accompaniment to an appetizer.

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