Inside the Spice Cabinet: Curry Leaves

updated Jan 21, 2020
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(Image credit: Karla Conrad)

If you’ve ever cooked Indian or other Southeast Asian recipes, you’ve probably seen curry leaves listed in the ingredients. These unique leaves have a distinctive fragrance and add that special something to a dish that one can’t get from any other ingredient, so don’t omit it just because you feel it’s unfamiliar or impossible to find.

What Are Curry Leaves?

Taste: Bitter, sour
Most Popular Use: Rice, soup, stew

Curry leaves come from the curry tree, Murraya koenigii. The leaves are also sold as “sweet neem leaves” and are found in Indian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean, and Pakistani cuisine. These leaves are not related to the spice we know as “curry powder,” even though they are used to season many curry dishes.

Curry leaves are dark green in color and elongated in shape, resembling a bay leaf. They are very fragrant. Some people in Southeast Asia chew them as a digestive aid. They are also good for preventing diarrhea.

Fresh curry leaves are preferred over dried ones, because they lose flavor as they age. They are extremely perishable, so use them quickly. You can find them in Indian or Southeast Asian groceries, and online.

How To Use Curry Leaves

Curry leaves are used predominantly in Southeast Asian cooking to flavor rice, soups, stews, and chutneys. Curry leaves soften as they cook, and it’s recommended that they be cooked in oil first, to bring out their flavor.

Recipe for Cooking with Curry Leaves