Fresh curry leaves have been used in southern India for centuries where the Murraya or Curry Tree is cultivated in private gardens dfor its spicy and unique aroma. Native to the sub-tropical forests of Asia, the fragrant leaves are used to flavour a range of south Asian cuisines and appear in many authentic recipes.
Sourcing Fresh Leaves and Plants
Unfortunately for many, fresh leaves can be difficult to source. You may be lucky enough to live close to an Asian grocer or market, in which case the leaves can usually be found in plastic bags in the refrigerated section. These can be kept for a week or two in the refrigerator, but don’t be tempted to freeze them as they will lose most of their flavour and become a slimy mush. If necessary, they can be dried with more success, but the flavour loses much of its vibrancy, so fresh is always best.
The best way to ensure a continuous supply of fresh curry leaves is to grow your own tree. Asian grocers often sell small plants in pots that can be transplanted to a larger pot or a garden bed in warmer areas.
Some nurseries sell curry trees, however ensure you are buying the true ‘Murraya koenigii’ and not the western herb ‘Curry Bush’ or ‘Helichrysum italicum’ which is a different plant altogether.
If you know someone that has a curry tree, it is possible to propagate a new plant from stem cuttings Alternatively, curry trees can be grown from seed but the seeds must be fresh off the tree as dry seeds quickly lose their viability. The ripe seeds should be sown in warm seed raising mix (about 20°C or 68°F) and will germinate in approximately 10 days.
Recommended reading: Best Indian Cookbooks
Maintaining a Curry Tree
The Murraya or Curry Tree is an attractive, fast-growing, deciduous shrub native to sub-tropical Asia. In warm climates it can be planted in a sunny to half-sunny position in the garden and will easily fill the space it is given, growing up to 20 feet if allowed.
In colder climates and small areas, the trees can be grown in pots, keeping them a manageable size and protected from weather when necessary. In very cold climates, the pots should be moved into a sheltered spot such as a greenhouse or verandah, where they will often go dormant for the winter.
The curry tree will do best when grown in rich, well drained soil. They need consistent watering, ensuring they never are completely dried out or overly wet, and will thrive with some light feeding during the warmer growing months.
Avoid stripping young trees of too many leaves and give them a chance to properly establish. Small white flowers followed by black berries are best picked off to help the tree put its energy into growing larger and producing more leaves. Once the tree is well established, with plenty of leaves, you can tip prune regularly to keep the tree compact and bushy.
Cooking with Fresh Curry Leaves
Curry leaves are used in South Asian cooking much like bay leaves are used in western cooking. While they are often used in curries, it is a misconception that they deliver the ‘curry’ flavour associated with Indian curries which use ground spices such as cumin, coriander and turmeric as often found in a garam marsala or ‘curry powder’.
Fresh curry leaves are not only used in curries, but also in chutneys and pickles and a range of meat and vegetable dishes. They are usually fried in oil or ghee, and can be either added individually or as a whole sprig that is removed before the dish is served. A word of warning: the oil will sputter when the fresh leaves hit the pan, so step back and wear protective clothing.
Crushing the leaves a little before adding them to the dish will produce a stronger flavour and for an intense aroma, puree them in a blender and add the pungent green liquid for a heady kick.
For a quick and delicious meal using fresh curry leaves, try Priya Ravindran’s Potato Curry recipe. Once you taste the unique and delicious flavour of fresh curry leaves, they will become an indispensable ingredient, and with a little care, a valuable addition to your culinary garden.
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