Curry Leaves: A Truly Indian Spice

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Curry leaves are from the subtropical sweet neem (Murraya koenigii) tree. The sweet neem tree is native to the foothills of the Himalayas. The Tamil name for curry leaves literally translates to “leaf used to make curry.”

The usage of curry leaves in Indian and Sri Lankan cooking stretches all the way back into the region’s ancient history. They are primarily used in the regions that have had Indian influences on their culture. For example, immigrants to South Africa and Malaysia carried curry leaves with them to those places.

British merchants invented curry powder in the late 18th century. The blend of spices was intended to mimic the taste of authentic Indian curries. Some curry powder blends contain dried curry leaves. It is unlikely that the leaves have much influence on the flavor of curry powder since they lose their flavor soon after being dried.

Flavor profile of curry leaves

Curry leaves are very aromatic with a flavor that is complex and which is often described as very herbal. Along with the herbal flavor, there are distinct citrus notes. The flavor works well with the other spices commonly used in curry dishes, including asafoetida and mustard seeds.

Health benefits of curry leaves

Curry leaves have multiple health benefits. They have been used medicinally and as a flavoring for food. They contain a range of nutrients including:

  • Minerals: Curry leaves contain calcium, phosphorous and iron. Calcium and phosphorous are both necessary for healthy bones and teeth. Phosphorus also helps with waste filtration in the kidneys. Red blood cells to carry oxygen to the various tissues using iron.
  • Vitamins: Curry leaves contain vitamins including vitamins C, A and E. Vitamin C helps with healing wounds as well as with the maintenance and repair of bones and teeth. Along with benefits for bones and teeth, vitamin A helps to promote good eyesight and skin health. Vitamin E helps with the function of many of the body’s organs and is an antioxidant.
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals harm cells, tissues and organs. The antioxidants in curry leaves include vitamin E and carbazole alkaloids.

Curry leaves have been used throughout history to treat various conditions. They considered good for treating diarrhea along with various other gastrointestinal problems. They are thought to have cancer-fighting benefits and can help with liver protection. In addition, studies have shown curry leaves to be effective for reducing the effects of the carcinogen dimethylhydrazine hydrochloride.

Common uses of curry leaves

Curry leaves are used in a wide variety of dishes from the subcontinent. Methods of using them include adding the leaves whole to curry dishes and chopping them. Curry leaves may also be ground into a powder that is used as a spice. Yet another way to use them is to fry them until crisp in the same way that sage leaves are sometimes used. The fried leaves can then be added as a topping to curry dishes.

Curry leaves are often used dal, which is a dish consisting of stewed lentils. It is also used in a dipping sauce for fritters called rasam.