For every cook, spices and herbs are magical tools for creating wonders with their cooking, and it’s common to have one or many secret ingredients to compose individuality of their special flavours. To most of the south Indian chefs, curry leaves become the definitive trick in taste, smell and look of their dishes.
As we discover the life and journey of this superior star in food, there’s more to it than as a leaf used frequently for seasoning curries. The Brits had even thought the term curry came from curry leaves!
“Don’t use me and throw away like a curry leaf” is a popular sentiment in many remote conversations in Kerala among people when relationships turn sour.
Although people know so much about the unique qualities of a herb like a curry leaf, people discard it as the first thing even before they start eating. Ayurveda recommends chewing curry leaves well to absorb its essence. They help digestive disorders, diabetes, eyesight and premature greying of hair.
Long ago, every south Indian household grew curry leaf plants in their back garden. Their sweet smell was good enough to instil a craving, and sometimes, even to judge the quality of cooking.
Twenty-five years ago we had very few south Indian restaurants in London, hence curry leaves were seen rarely in English vegetable markets. At the same time, Asian vegetable shops used to give them free with grocery shopping until a few years ago.
With boosted Indian and Sri Lankan diaspora and restaurants, curry leaves started to appear more in wholesale markets; obviously, demand kept rising. Recently, the big news in the UK was Indian curry leaves were banned since they were contaminated with Salmonella bacteria and caused diarrhoea and vomiting.
With persisting need, curry leaves had to arrive from elsewhere. Lately, curry leaves come from other countries. Earlier, the price per box was under £8. Recently, it shot up to almost £100, perhaps the most expensive herb at the moment. Alphonso mangoes were similarly banned a couple of years ago when they found some consignments were infested with fruit flies.
Curry leaf was my favourite ingredient in cooking since I was a child. I regularly walked with my mother nurturing this plant in our garden, and followed its fragrance as she walked back into the kitchen with a handful of leaves. I liked it more for its freshness; it never interferes in other flavours and retains its own remarkable influence in any dish.
Curry leaf is a proven herb for its quality and usefulness of our food and traditional medicines. There’s no other ingredient that brings external and internal flavours so evenly as it does. South Indian food was instrumental for a new identity for Indian food, for people started to realise the diversity of our cuisine. An iconic ingredient like curry leaf played a big part in bringing the difference.
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants