Sometimes one simple ingredient can step up your game and add that little something extra to a dish.
Meet fresh curry leaves. They come from the curry tree, Murraya koenigii.
Curry leaves are incredibly aromatic. They have a taste and aroma all their own. Couldn’t quite put my finger on the flavor of curry leaves, as their flavor is so distinct. Upon reading that curry leaves are a member of the citrus family, I wasn’t entirely surprised. They have a subtle, citrus quality to them.
Curry leaves are common in South Indian cooking, but completely unrelated to your traditional curry spice blend. Typically, curry leaves are quickly sizzled in hot oil, along with spices and other aromatics. Toasting the leaves heightens their aroma and infuses flavor into a dish. The toasted curry leaves can then be added to salads, rice, lentils/dals, chutneys, seafood, chicken…oh, in addition to flavoring the dish at hand, toasted curry leaves are completely edible and quite tasty.
Like many other plants, curry leaves have a host of medicinal properties, including aiding in digestion, treating cuts and burns, preventing premature graying and stimulating hair growth, improving eyesight, controlling blood sugars…who knew? I find the healing properties of plants fascinating — food as medicine (absent the laundry list of unwanted side effects).
You should be able to find curry leaves at most Indian markets. Make sure to get fresh curry leaves; dried curry leaves have little flavor. Fresh curry leaves have a relatively short shelf life in the refrigerator, but will keep for several months in the freezer.
Once you have fresh curry leaves on hand, the possibilities abound.
Today I made a yellow lemon rice, spiced with cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, fenugreek, chiles, plenty of lemon juice and zest, and a nice big handful of toasted curry leaves.
Topped the rice with shrimp and crispy garlic chips.
Yellow Lemon Rice with Curry Leaves
3 cups cooked (brown or white) Basmati rice
2 tablespoons olive oil (or coconut oil)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
4-5 dried red chiles, chopped into thirds (more or less as desired)
15 curry leaves plus a few extra for topping
2 tablespoons small black lentils, rinsed and then soaked in water for 2-3 hours, then drained
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
pinch of fenugreek
*pinch of asafetida (optional)
juice and zest of 1 1/2 lemons
sea salt to taste
heaping 1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro, chopped
toasted chopped cashews for garnish
To toast the cashews: Preheat oven to 400°F. Roast 7-8 minutes, until lightly browned. Roughly chop.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok. When hot, add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds, and cook — gently shaking the pan for 1-2 minutes until the mustard seeds pop. Add the dried red chiles, curry leaves, chana daal, and garlic, and saute another minute or two until the garlic is softened but not browned. Add the turmeric powder, fenugreek, asafaetida, and lemon zest. Stir to combine. Add the cooked rice, cilantro, and lemon juice. Season with salt to taste. Mix well. Stir another minute or so until just warmed through.
Serve topped with toasted cashews and a few more toasted curry leaves.
*Asafetida is the dried gum resin of several west Asian plants (genus Ferula) of the carrot family and is used as a flavoring agent in Indian cooking. Asafetida is also known as hing (pronounced heeng). When heated in olive oil or ghee, its flavor is reminiscent of sauteed leek.