Curry leaves play a major role in the flavor of many Southeast Asian dishes. Curry leaves’ distinctive flavor can be the element that makes a dish taste truly authentic. They are so important that cooks who enjoy preparing the Indian, Thai or Malaysian dishes make sure to them keep them on hand.
Curry leaves can be very difficult to find in the US, which means that you may need to find a substitute if you run out. Their pungent aroma and flavor is unique and very difficult to replicate; however, there are alternatives that you can use in an emergency.
Your best bet: Lime zest
Lime zest is the upper layer of the lime’s rind. The oils in the zest are pungent and can provide a strong citrus flavor along with a subtle aroma that is similar to the flavor and aroma of curry leaves. The zest flavor should work well in most dishes that call for curry leaves. Some cooks use a combination of basil leaves and lime zest to replicate both the herbal and citrus notes in curry leaves.
You can use the zest of a single lime to replace 8 curry leaves. Use the same amount of basil that your recipe indicates for curry leaves.
A decent second choice: Bay leaves
While bay leaves are best known for being a staple herb in Mediterranean cuisine, they are also widely used in Indian food. Bay leaves provide some of the same sweet and savory notes that you would get from curry leaves. They are suitable for most of the dishes that call for curry leaves and work well with other Asian herbs and spices.
Indonesian bay leaves are similar in appearance to the bay leaves mentioned above, but they have a different flavor. The flavor of Indonesian bay leaves has some similarities to the flavor of cinnamon. This type of bay leaf is also a good substitute for curry leaves.
You can use a single bay leaf in place of a 1/2 cup of curry leaves. Bay leaves work best in soups and stews.
In a pinch: Makrut (“Kaffir”) lime leaves
Like curry leaves, these are not easy to find but can provide a similar flavor to your dishes. Like curry leaves, they have a strong and distinctive flavor that is complemented by citrus notes. It is important to remind your guests that Makrut lime leaves are for flavoring the dish and should not be eaten whole.
- Options for using the leaves include:
- Crushing them with a mortar and pestle.
- Slicing them finely with a knife or kitchen scissors.
- Using them whole and letting them simmer in the dish for a while.
You can use six Makrut lime leaves in place of 10 curry leaves. Lime leaves work best in soups and stir-fries.
Lemon balm has a distinctive lemon flavor and is a type of mint. Lemon balm’s aroma is similar to that of curry leaves. To replace curry leaves with lemon balm, use a third less of the amount that your recipe requires for curry leaves. Some cooks suggest using basil leaves alone as a substitute for curry leaves. Their floral notes can effectively complement most dishes that require curry leaves.