Curry leaves add a wonderfully aromatic South Indian flair to your cooking. They are sautéed in oil to release their fragrance at the beginning of a dish or to give it a final flourish. This herb adds a mysterious and fragrant layer of flavor. Make my rich Goan beef curry for a recipe with curry leaves.
About the Curry Plant
A deciduous, sub-tropical tree native to India, the curry leaf plant belongs to the citrus family. Its botanical name was Murraya Koenigii, but it has been changed to Bergera Koenigii. And it is alternatively known as karipatta, sweet neem, kadipatta, curry patta, and more.
The curry leaf plant can grow into a tree up to 20 feet high, but most home gardens grow smaller plants. If you are considering planting a curry tree, it does best in the USDA zones 9 through 12
; I find that you can push that boundary a bit north if you bring them in during the cold months. See the section on buying a curry leaf plant below for more details.
8 Good Substitutes
Curry leaves have a signature flavor with herbaceous, anise, and citrus notes. If you cannot find curry leaves, some substitutions will add flavor to your dish, but not all the flavor notes of the real thing.
However, it would be a shame to avoid making a recipe because you don't have curry leaves. If you understand that, here are some ideas for reasonable substitutes from the best to the least similar:
- Kafir lime leaves (makrut): Most similar in flavor but the also can be difficult to find.
- Lime or lemon zest: Readily available, a teaspoon of lime zest can add some of the citrus notes you get with the real thing. Buy unwaxed fruit.
- Basil: In combination with the zest of a lemon or lime, fresh basil can add those citrus and slightly minty (think anise) notes. Use the same amount of basil as curry leaves.
- Mediteranean bay leaves: While you won't get the citrus notes, bay leaves add a minty, earthy sweetness. Bay leaves can be overpowering so add a leaf or so, adding more if needed.
- Lemon balm (melissa): Lemon balm can be a reasonable stand-in for curry leaves in a pinch. It adds a similar earthy citrus note to dishes. However, it can also be hard to find.
- Lime leaves: While hard to find, lime leaves can give a flavor approximation to curry leaves. Use sparingly because their flavor is quite intense.
- Daum Salan: Alternatively called Indonesian or Indian bay leaf, these dried leaves resemble the Mediterranean bay leaf. They add an earthy, sweet citrus note to dishes. This herb works best in meat dishes.
Curry Powder is Not a Substitute
As confusing as it may seem, curry powder has nothing to do with curry leaves. Curry leaves are a fresh aromatic herb, and curry powder is a many varied combination of dried and ground spices.
So, curry powder is never a substitute for curry leaves. Nor are curry leaves a good substitute for curry powder.
Curry Leaves are Found in What Forms?
Ideally, you can find fresh curry leaves. If not they can also be found dried whole, or as a powder. Unless you have dried and ground the leaves yourself, I can't recommend store-bought dried whole or ground curry leaves because they can be quite old and flavorless.
If you have more leaves than you need, certainly drying them is a good option. Freshly dried leaves can be a reasonably close approximation of the fresh leaves. See other methods in the Storing and Preserving section below.
Curry leaves have also been used for many years in Ayurvedic medicine. They are thought to have properties that can help to regulate cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as being anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.
Also, curry leaves are filled with antioxidants and phytonutrients. The reduction of tissue aging, heart disease, and the protection of the nervous system are just some of the other benefits attributed to this herb.
Where to Buy Fresh Leaves
In the ideal world, you have an Indian or international grocery nearby that you can find curry leaves. They are inexpensive and typically come in plastic bags with a good number of fronds in each.
If you cannot buy this herb in person, buying fresh curry leaves online is a reasonable option. I have purchased them from Amazon with good results, though of course, they are a bit pricey. ishopindian is another online source to consider. Or you could grow a curry leaf plant like I have.
Buy a Curry Leaf Plant
The curry leaf plant grows easily and doesn't require much care. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find them for sale in my city, so I've ordered one from New Jersey-based Seeds of India. They take orders during the fall and winter and then fulfill them when the plants are established enough to be shipped in late spring.
IMPORTANT: When buying a curry plant, make sure you are purchasing a curry leaf tree (murraya koenigli), not a very similar-looking curry plant (helichrysum italicum).
After two days in its little shipping box, my curry tree arrived in good condition. Here is a photo of the plant just after planting it in its first pot.
The best organic fertilizer for curry leaf plants that I have found is called EcoScraps. (See an image of this fertilizer in the photograph at the top of this post.) Their citrus and avocado formula has done wonders to boost the growth of my curry plant.
After sprinkling a teaspoon or two over the top of the ground in the pot once a month the plant has grown nicely and its foliage is much fuller. EcoSraps has iron sulfate which this plant needs.
If you would like more details about how to grow and care for a curry plant, go to the Garden Lovers Club entry on curry leaves. Also, Bhavna of Bhavna's Kitchen YouTube channel has a nice introduction to growing curry tree plants. She also has links to her blog on growing curry plants from seeds or cuttings.
Storing and Preserving
I find you typically get far more curry leaves in a packet than you can use up before they deteriorate. To store, remove the leaves from the stem and discard any blemished leaves. Wash and dry thoroughly and store in the:
- Refrigerator: Wrap the leaves in paper towels and tuck into a zippered bag or airtight container. Change the paper towels at least once a week to keep the leaves as dry as possible. They should stay fresh for up to two weeks.
- Freezer: Store them in an airtight container or plastic bag in the freezer for up to two months.
- Dry curry leaves: Prepare the leaves as above. Lay them on a baking sheet lined with paper towels and cover loosely. Depending on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen, it will take 2 to 4 days for the curry leaves to dry thoroughly. Store them in an airtight container and use as you would fresh leaves.
Either way, you preserve your curry leaves, they will darken a little, but much of the flavor and aroma will remain intact.
More South Indian Dishes Made with Curry Leaves