At the Pierce Farmstead we are trying to grow a few curry leaf trees, because we love the taste of it, particularly in rice and with meat. We typically add it to the oil first when we are going to cook something, and it imparts a great, peanut-like taste.
You may at this point be picturing shaking a container full of curry powder into a pan. But what we’re talking about here are a handful of leaves the flavor of which would disappear before it could ever be put into a powder.
“Curry powder” historically comes from the exotic and mysterious Asian nation of England. England, of course, held India as a colony and came up with a mix of dried spices to attempt to match the Indian masalas (spice mixes), and some of the Indian dishes that contained these masalas included curry leaf. Curry powder itself, however, normally contains items like dried turmeric, cumin, coriander, dried peppers, etc. with no curry leaf at all. (Note though that dried turmeric is very healthy and there’s nothing wrong with curry powder as a spice blend. Quiz question: What common American condiment contains mainly turmeric?)
Pictured here is a (small) curry leaf tree. Murraya Koenigii. The leaves of this plant have a strong taste when fresh and a weak taste when dried (to me, fresh, it tastes a lot like peanuts). It’s used as a base in some Indian masalas and eastward throughout Southeast Asia.
In Thai cooking (which uses fresh herbs much more than the dried powders seen in some Indian cuisines) the leaves are ground in a mortar and pestle with other fresh items (lemon grass, chilis, galangal, etc) to make what we would call curry paste. It is just one of a number of ingredients required to make kaeng (Thai curry), and the curry leaf is a background taste, but an essential one in the many varieties of Thai curry.
Just to confuse the issue, this is a “curry plant” (the photo is from Wikimedia Commons). It’s a Mediterranean plant, Helichrysum Italicum, that Europeans gave this name because of its strong, spicy smell. It has nothing to do with curry powder nor the curry leaf tree and is generally not a great thing to add to food.
Spices in general are a great way to flavor foods with without adding unhealthy ingredients to them, and spices, historically, have had great value because of their ability to transform simple foods. Movement of spices around the world not only bought improved flavors and developed commerce but it also was a way that cultures came into contact with each other. See Wikipedia, the Spice Trade.
We have planted curry leaf trees in several locations around the Farmstead. None have grown as quickly as we might like, but I’ve made an attempt to acidify the soil they are in to get them growing to a sufficient size that we can start taking the leaves off and using them. We’ll keep you posted.