I have a lush curry leaf tree in my vegetable garden that has had to be pruned heavily after a pest attack. It is one of the rare times I have had to buy curry leaves. A few months ago, when I plucked a big bunch of curry leaves from the tree and shared the picture in my family WhatsApp group, my cousins in the US told me it would cost them a small fortune to buy such a big bunch of curry leaves in their cities.
I remember a south Indian-origin food blogger friend in the US telling me about her attempt to grow a curry leaf plant in her living room by keeping a lamp shining on the plant all day to help promote photosynthesis. I can well empathise with the need to grow your own curry leaves when Amazon US sells an ounce of dried curry leaves for $19.99 (around ₹1,400). So it’s a relief to be in a country where vegetable vendors often throw in a small bunch of curry leaves as a freebie if you buy a few vegetables from them.
Curry leaves are rich in antioxidants as well as iron and are said to be beneficial for diabetics. The book Leafy Medicinal Herbs—Botany, Chemistry, Postharvest Technology And Uses mentions that curry leaves are used as part of digestive formulations in Ayurvedic medicine. South Indian grandmothers swear by the properties of curry leaves for keeping their tresses long and black well past their 60s. Curry leaves, whether they are eaten or used topically as hair oil, are said to help slow the process of premature greying. Yet despite all the nutrients and health benefits, curry leaves are promptly fished out of the plate and kept aside, as though an offering to the food gods.
They are called karipatta in Hindi and karuveppilai, or black neem, in Tamil—a comparison common in Indian languages since the shape of curry leaves is similar to that of neem leaves. In Gujarati, for instance, they are called meetho limdo (sweet neem).
Curry leaves have a unique flavour profile, made up of citrus, anise, lemongrass and sulphurous notes like asafoetida, that is tough to replicate with any other herb or spice. Simmering fresh leaves in liquids like rasam or sambhar brings out the citrusy notes, while frying them in hot oil extracts more flavour into the fat, highlighting the savoury, curry-like notes. The mature leaves are more suited for deep-frying. Turned to a crisp, the fried leaves in a tadka also add a lot of texture in south Indian dishes, along with fried urad dal and mustard seeds.
To extract maximum health benefits from curry leaves, use them generously as the main ingredient in condiments like chutneys, podis and pickles, or grind them to form the base of a curry, as in Assamese fish curries.
Curry leaves can be dried and stored for longer periods. They can be dried in the sun, in the microwave or in a convection oven. Dried leaves can be stored whole (like bay leaves) or crushed into a powder and stored in airtight bottles.
I love experimenting with curry leaves in a variety of condiments and one of them is this dukkah. Dukkah in Egyptian means “to pound”. It is a pounded mix of nuts, herbs and seeds. Traditionally, it is served with crusty bread, olive oil and hummus. In the Indian context, you can use it to top raitas, soups and salads. Crunchy flavourful dukkah can be mixed with steamed rice and ghee like a south Indian podi.
CURRY LEAF DUKKAH
Makes over 1 cup
Quarter cup almonds
Quarter cup cashews
2 handfuls curry leaves
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
Half tsp black peppercorns
Quarter cup white sesame seeds (unpolished)
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
1 tsp salt
In a heavy pan, toast the almonds and cashews for four-five minutes on a low-medium flame until fragrant. Remove to a dish. Toast the leaves in the same pan for five-six minutes until they turn crisp. Remove to another dish.
In the same pan, toast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds and black peppercorns for two-three minutes until aromatic. Add the sesame seeds and toss until the seeds start popping. Once the popping sounds stop, transfer this to the dish with the curry leaves and allow to cool.
In a mixer jar, place the toasted nuts and use the pulse function to grind to a coarse powder. Remove this to a bowl. Now transfer the remaining toasted ingredients to the mixer jar and make a coarse powder. Mix it into the bowl along with the salt. Transfer to an airtight container and keep refrigerated. Use within one-two weeks.
CURRY LEAF TOMATO SHORBA
A curry leaf flavoured tomato soup to warm up winter evenings
Makes 4-6 servings
2 handfuls curry leaves
4 medium-sized tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled
Half inch piece ginger, sliced
2 tbsp masoor dal, washed
Half tsp cumin powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
For the tempering
2 tsp ghee or coconut oil
Half tsp cumin seeds
Half tsp red chilli powder
In a pressure cooker, combine all the ingredients except the ones for tempering. Add three cups water and pressure-cook on sim for 10 minutes after the first whistle (full pressure).
Blend the ingredients to a fine purée. Pass this through a fine meshed sieve into a pan, mashing with a ladle to extract all the liquids. Thin with some water if required and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, heat ghee in a small pan or tempering ladle. Fry cumin seeds and when they splutter, stir in the chilli powder. Transfer this over the shorba. Serve in a small glasses as an appetiser to the main meal.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.