The God’s smiled upon South India and Sri Lanka when they decided to make this the only region of the world to host an herb so flavorful and unique that the natives had no choice but to lace their food with it, creating great culinary traditions. No, curry leaves are not the secret ingredient in the spice mixture known as curry powder (though I add some in mine), but they are used fresh in many dishes as a flavor enhancer. Known to Indians as katneem or meethi neem and to Sri Lankans as karapincha, this narrow leaf, pointed at the tip, has been described as having a faint citrusy flavor and an aroma reminiscent of anise. But after a lifetime of eating it, I can truly say it bears no comparison to anything else on this earth (in the same way that the Shiso, or Perilla leaf, used in Japan and Vietnam is in a class of its own). Certainly don’t try to substitute Bay leaves, which have nothing whatsoever in common. Like kefir lime leaves are to Thai cooking, curry leaves, which are even used in rice and sambol, are the essential flavor of Sri Lankan food. Of course, you can make a curry without them, but once you’ve tried them, there’s no turning back.
Thankfully, in our modern age, fresh curry leaves are readily available in Indian stores, and even, I hear, some Whole Foods locations. But recently there was a shortage of curry leaves in the U.S. When I spoke to the distributor who supplies my local Indian store with them, he told me that bad weather in Florida and Hawaii was to blame (I guess this is where the local crop comes from). As a result, I have taken to stashing a couple packets of fresh leaves in my freezer— as it’s better than not having any. The dried leaves are worthless in my estimation. Some Sri Lankan friends of mine here in the U.S. also managed to procure a cutting from a friend’s tree, and I am carefully tending that with hopes that one day I will have my own personal supply.
Aside from their culinary benefits, curry leaves also supposedly have many health benefits. They aid in digestion; can cure nausea and diarrhea; and according to my 82-year-old Aunt, who should know, they are good for regulating cholesterol and blood pressure. Whatever the case, on taste alone I’m sold, and if you’re making a curry you should be too.