Anyone familiar with South Indian cuisine as well as South East Asian cuisine will remember those little, pointed leaves floating in their gravy. The spicy and hot chicken, prawn, and mutton dishes with nigela and mustard seeds get their bitter aroma and aromatic antithesis from these curry leaves.
Used almost throughout South East Asia, the curry leaf is known by a different name in every language of the region. While the Burmese call it Pindosin or Pyim daw thein, the French have a more musical Feuilles de Cari for it.
Uses in Cooking
The curry leaf plant is native to tropical Asia, which includes southern India and Sri Lanka. Belonging to the Rutaceae family, the Murraya koenigii plant grows to a height between 2 and 5 meters, depending on various factors. The leaves are small, pointed, and in clusters, giving of a strong aroma faintly reminding one of citrus and anise. The aroma is delightful when added to curries and while frying spices.
The plant is found almost across the length and breadth of the India and Sri Lanka which is perhaps why it is so popular in local kitchens. Probably, their flavor traveled to the rest of the South Asian countries―Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar from the Indian subcontinent, and then took up home in their cuisines as well.
Curry leaves are very tender and best used fresh. They can be frozen and kept for future use also, but should not be removed from the stalk in that case, lest they lose their flavor. In cooking, it is best to use fresh leaves, fried in hot oil or ghee for the aroma. Contrary to popular belief, the curry leaf does not come from the curry plant, nor is it the secret behind the flavor of the curry powder. While some people may add it to their curry powder, it is largely a seasoning leaf, to be used only in specific curries to provide a tangy taste. Very rarely it is ground along with other spices, more often than not, it is the first thing in the oil to be used to make the curry itself. Not surprisingly, the curry then acquires a personality of its own, aptly flavored by the little leaves.
Apart from cooking, the curry leaf has a number of medicinal uses. It is an essential ingredient of almost all traditional medicine systems of peninsular India, sometimes with amazingly good results. Unani, Ayurveda, and other systems use it to cure ailments such as piles, to allay heat in the body, leukoderma, and blood-related disorders. In India, the curry leaf is used to prevent conditions such as nausea and stomach upsets. It is also used in treating skin irritations and poisonous bites. Its oils are invaluable as repellants and to cure skin disorders common to the tropics.
Scientifically speaking, the curry leaf contains: 2.6% oil, beta-caryophyllene, beta-gurjenene, beta-elemene, beta-phellandrene, beta-thujene, alpha-selinene, beta-bisabolene, beta-transocimene, and beta-cadinene.
There are many traditional remedies for everyday discomforts that utilize the goodness of the curry leaf, and we've listed a few. To gain relief from constipation, one can soak curry leaves in hot water for a few hours and drink the concoction with a spoonful of honey added to it. It eases the digestive tract and allows easier motion of stools. To cure nausea, brewing a curry leaf tea helps; and to cure nausea brought on by pregnancy, one can drink a mixture of 1 teaspoon curry leaves juice with 2 teaspoons lime juice and 1 teaspoon sugar every morning.
Curry leaves boiled in milk can be applied on a heat rash or a mild skin infection. It can also be ground into a paste with some turmeric and applied on acne-infected skin for a few days. The result is a glowing, clear skin. Curry leaves boiled with coconut oil can be an effective hair darkening agent which causes minimum damage and maximum benefit to graying or thinning hair.
The myriad uses of curry leaves make it a good idea to grow it in a small pot at home. All it needs is some watering during a dry spell and some sunshine during cold months. It can withstand a small amount of frost and needs moderate light and warmth to grow. A small pot with these aromatic leaves can be kept in a partially indoors area (like a verandah), to stave off insects etc too, as well as impart a fresh aroma to the area.