Curry -- the word is almost meaningless. In this country, it usually refers to a dish flavored with curry powder or something served at an Indian restaurant, as if all Indian dishes with spicy sauce could be lumped into a single category. This, of course, is not the case.
In fact, authentic Indian cuisine never involves the prepackaged combination of spices known as curry powder. In southern India, however, many dishes make liberal use of curry leaves. Despite their name, these leaves taste nothing like curry powder.
Curry leaves are small, about the size of a slim basil leaf, with a smooth surface and pointy shape. They add a slightly peppery flavor to all kinds of dishes, from stews to yogurts, from soups to sauces. Just as makrut lime leaves add a special touch to Thai food, and epazote distinguishes certain Mexican dishes, curry leaves are a signature flavoring in south Indian cooking.
Once unobtainable here, fresh curry leaves are now available year-round in almost every Indian market, and surprisingly, they’re less expensive than more common herbs in supermarkets.
They keep longer too, and can be frozen. However, the flavor dissipates over time, so once picked, curry leaves should be used as soon as possible. For enthusiastic cooks, the best idea is to plant a curry leaf tree and pluck as needed.
The leaves grow in neat rows on either side of stems, which are usually discarded (although whole sprigs are sometimes added to sauces). The leaves don’t wilt when cooked.
Unlike bay leaves, curry leaves are edible, although I tend to push them aside. This may be a mistake, because they are considered by some to have medicinal benefit, especially for dark-haired people. In his book “Home Remedies” (Penguin Books India), T.V. Sairam writes that curry leaves “strengthen the body, increase appetite, eliminate body heat and fever. They impart brightness to the eyes and guarantee blackness of hair.”
You’ll find curry leaves regularly in dishes at southern Indian restaurants. There’s a concentration of such restaurants in Cerritos and Artesia, but the cuisine has spread beyond those borders. For example, in West Hollywood, Darshan Singh of Flavor of India has added several southern Indian dishes to his menu. They include fish molee, a curry rich with coconut milk, golden with turmeric and accented with curry leaves.
South Indians typically fry mustard seeds, curry leaves and chiles together to add when a dish is almost finished. An example of this preparation is kottu, a dal soup on the menu at Madras Tiffin Cafe in Cerritos.
This light, simple soup contains shredded cabbage and green pepper, “but you can use any summer vegetable,” says Palwinder Kaur, the cafe’s owner. The dal is split yellow channa dal, a lentil-like dried legume available in all Indian markets.
Curry leaves are used in other parts of India too, especially the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Gujarati vegetarians like to dip their roti, a flat bread, into a bowl of soupy potatoes fragrant with spices, says Ravi Merchant of Patel Brothers, who is from Gujarat.
In the recipe for this dish, called bateta shaak, curry leaves, mustard seeds and other spices are fried, then simmered with potatoes to make a dish with plenty of sauce. A heady dose of ground coriander and cumin and a sprinkling of cilantro make for pungent flavor.
But if you’ve ever traveled to India and eaten this sort of food, you’ll recognize at once that it is authentic. Roti and nan breads for dipping are stocked in Indian markets. Pita or any other firm bread can be substituted.
Once you’ve tried them in southern Indian recipes, consider experimenting with other uses for curry leaves. They’re a natural crossover ingredient. Drop a few into a pot of rice, for example. Or add them to soup. The curry leaf tree may be an exotic newcomer in the California garden, but it quickly makes itself at home in our kitchens.