Its leaves are used in many dishes in India and neighbouring countries. Often used in curries, the leaves generally go by the name “curry leaves”, though they are also called “sweet neem leaves”.
In Tamil, it’s pronounced “kariveppilai”, in Telugu “karivepaaku” and in Malayalam “kariveppila”.
Literally, “kari” means “curry” or it can mean “black”, “veppu” neem and “ilai”/“ila” “leaf”. In Kannada the name means “black neem”, since the appearance of the leaves is similar to the unrelated bitter neem tree. In Telugu, it is pronounced as Ka/ri/vepa/aaku. Similarly, in Gujarati it is known as “limdo” or “meetho leemdo” and in Hindi as “meetha neem”, meaning “sweet neem”. Again, in Hindi and Urdu it is also called “karipatta” where “patta” means “leaf”.
Curry leaf is one of my favourite spices, with its fern-like leaves that only need to be brushed against or gently touched to share their spicy aroma, with overtones of citrus and anise.
The scent is so refreshing, that it instantly tantalises the taste buds. An attractive, upright, branching tree growing two-five metres (although I have seen one much taller that seemed to be heading for heaven, as it was planted beside a two-storey house).
Clusters of small, white fragrant flowers form in summer, followed by one cm edible, shiny black berries. The curry leaf tree requires rich, well-drained soil in a warm, sheltered position, as it is a tropical to sub-tropical tree. With regular watering during dry times, the tree will flourish. The tree will adapt to warm temperate areas, and if wishing to grow it in colder climates.
In the kitchen, use the leaves for a warm, appetising aroma and a subtle, spicy flavour with meat, seafood or vegetable curries, chutneys, pickles, coconut sauces, relishes, omelettes, marinades and vegetarian cuisine.
The method of using the leaves (preferably fresh ones) in stir-fries and curries, is to heat some oil, butter or ghee in a pan, add the curry leaves along with a little ginger and garlic and sauté until brown. The flavour of the curry leaf is enhanced when fried. Fresh curry leaves will keep for a week if kept in a dry plastic bag in the fridge.
Curry powder does not come from the curry tree, as some people often think. Curry powder is usually a combination of many ingredients including ginger, chilli, black pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic, fenugreek, and turmeric to give the yellow colour.
The proportion of each ingredient in the curry powder will depend on the tradition and origin of each particular recipe. However, crushed leaves from the curry tree are used as an ingredient in some Madras curry powders.
The dried leaves add a spicy note to pot-pourri. Do not confuse the curry tree with the curry plant (Helichrysum italicum syn. H. angustifolium) which belongs to the Asteraceae family.
The curry plant is a perennial bush to 50 cm with fine, silvery grey stems and leaves.
A grey down covers the four cm long narrow leaves and when rubbed they smell strongly of curry. Yellow button-like flowers form as terminal clusters.
Propagation of the curry plant is by seeds, cuttings and root division. Grow in a well-drained area. Trim bushes regularly to keep them in good shape. Use the trimmings in pot-pourri. The dried flowers keep their colour for a long time. Add chopped young tender leaves to salads, cooked meat and savoury dishes.
How to select
Ensure that the leaves are fresh and devoid of any cuts, spots or blemishes. They will be pale green or dark green in colour depending on the variety. Its better to purchase leaves which are attached to the stem so that they have a better shelf life.
• They are primarily used in Indian cuisine to temper recipes. Use torn curry leaves or whole as a tempering agent for dals, rasams, sambhar, chutneys, dhoklas etc.
• Use chopped curry leaves along with green chillies and ginger to flavour upmas.
• Dry roast curry leaves and combine with dried red chillies, asafoetida and urad dal to make spicy chutneys and powders which should be had with sesame oil and steamed rice.
How to store
They don’t have a long shelf life and thus should be wrapped in a moist kitchen towel or newspaper and then stored in the refrigerator. Detach the leaves from the stem only before cooking.
• Curry leaves have antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and is thus used widely in Ayurvedic medicines.
• It aids digestion and thus one can chew curry leaves when having a tummy ache. It is especially good for preventing diarrhoea.
• Scientific research has proven that inclusion of curry leaves is beneficial for people with diabetes. Curry leaves taken with black pepper on an empty stomach can reduce blood sugar levels.
• It helps in skin care too. Intake of curry leaves can promote clear and healthy skin.
• They are a fair source of Vitamin A and calcium.
Curry leaf know-how
• Fresh curry leaves can be fried in oil to add depth of flavour at the start of cooking, or shredded and added to dishes in the last few minutes.
• Curry leaves are great with lentils, vegies, fish, coconut, turmeric and mustard seeds in slow-cooked curries, spice mixes and chutney.
• Dried curry leaves are less pungent than fresh—if using dried, double the quantity.
Tip: Long live the leaves
Store curry leaves in a plastic bag in the crisper for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to three months.
Crush a curry leaf between your fingers and breathe in the slightly spicy, citrus scent. Use the fresh leaves in Indian dishes or to make an aromatic infused olive oil.
• 250ml (1 cup) extra virgin olive oil
• 2 tbs fresh curry leaves, washed, dried
1. Place the oil and curry leaves in a small heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Cook for four-five minutes or until the leaves start to sizzle. Set aside for five minutes to cool.
2. Strain the oil through a fine sieve into a heatproof jug. Discard the leaves. Pour the oil into a sterilised bottle. Set aside to cool completely.
Curry leaf know-how: Fresh curry leaves can be fried in oil to add depth of flavour at the start of cooking, or shredded and added to dishes in the last few minutes.
Curry leaves are great with lentils, vegies, fish, coconut, turmeric and mustard seeds in slow-cooked curries, spice mixes and chutney.
Dried curry leaves are less pungent than fresh — if using dried, double the quantity.
Tip: Store curry leaves in a plastic bag in the crisper for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to three months.
Curry leaf oil ideas: Brush over naan bread and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden. Use in marinades with crushed garlic, grated ginger and fresh lime juice. For an Indian-inspired dressing, mix curry leaf oil, fresh lime juice and finely chopped fresh red or green chilli.
Storage tip: Store in the fridge for up to 2 months. Bring to room temperature to serve.
Shrimp With Curry Leaves Recipe
1 lb large shrimp, shell-on and head-on
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons oil
2 sprigs curry leaves, use only the leaves
5-10 bird’s eye chilies (depends on your heat tolerance), chopped
5 shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Rinse the shrimp and pat dry. Season the shrimp with salt and marinate for about 5 minutes. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil and deep fry the curry leaves and shrimp for 1 minute or until the shrimp turn slightly crispy and colour changes. Remove the shrimp with curry leaves and set aside. If there is remaining oil in the wok, leave it in.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of cooking oil in the wok, put in the bird eye’s chillies, shallots, garlic, and stir fry for 1 minute or until fragrant.
Mix in the shrimp with curry leaves. Add in the turmeric powder, tamarind concentrate, sugar and stir fry continuously for 3 minutes or until all the ingredients are well combined. Dish out and serve immediately with steamed rice.