Chef and TV host Anjum Anand has a new book of recipes out that every fan of Indian food should own. Beyond foolproof guides to the classic curries and breads, Anand’s I Love India takes a dive into the ingredients behind the magic. If you think curry leaves smell like curry, you’re in for a surprise. How do you use curry leaves? Let Anand enlighten you.
These lovely, droopy herb leaves – each with a sharp point and a vibrant, glossy green coating – rival coriander (cilantro) in India’s food affections. Curry leaves are an essential ingredient and form part of the “Holy Trinity” of South Indian flavors, along with mustard seeds and coconut. Many people who live on the western coast will grow curry leaves in the garden, and pick stems off as needed. Contrary to their name, they don’t smell of curry, but have a lovely, clear, identifiable aroma of their own.
You really don’t need a reason to cook with these lovely leaves other than their sublime flavour but, according to ancient Indian medics, the herbs are a real powerhouse of health. They are believed to be anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial as well as being full of minerals and vitamins so – a bit like turmeric – they are a vital ingredient to include in the diet as often as possible. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, curry leaves are believed to relieve congestion, detoxify the liver, stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels (so great for diabetics), be helpful for anaemia as their folic acid helps absorb iron, and be good for digestion and cholesterol levels. My father-in-law eats two or three curry leaves on an empty stomach with a couple of black peppercorns and a date every morning, as part of his health regime… his vitamins, so to speak!
On a cosmetic note, curry leaves are thought to be really good for bad skin and dry, damaged or limp hair: you blend a good handful of the fresh leaves, heat them gently with some cosmetic oil, then massage into the skin or hair as necessary.
To get the best out of curry leaves, they only need to be fried in a little oil to release their inherent flavor, then be cooked until lightly crisp. Unfortunately, fresh curry leaves don’t keep for long, so when you buy a batch, wrap what you think you might use (still on their stems) in moist kitchen paper and keep them in the fridge. Dry the rest on baking sheets and then store in an airtight container; they won’t have as much flavor, so use them with a heavier hand, but they will still liven up any dish.