Sangam era recipes to martinis, the many uses of the humble curry leaf

Curry leaves form an essential taste enhancer in south Indian kitchens, where they are mainly used to temper dishes.
Curry leaves on meat curry
Curry leaves on meat curry
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I dreamt that curry leaves were falling from the sky. Full sprigs with waxy, dark green leaves; smaller, tender, light green leaves… they all swirled down from above. I picked up a few and gathered them into a bouquet. I picked and picked until I could no more but the leaves kept falling… Later that day, the dream came back to me, reminding me why I probably dreamt about it in the first place. In my fridge were two boxes filled with curry leaf sprigs. If you were to open them, the cramped in curry leaf stems would plop out immediately, and if you’re not careful enough, down onto the floor.

My “give me very few curry leaves, please” requests to the vegetable seller are met with the swift snapping of a generous branch in half, hurriedly stuffed into my bulging bag of fresh vegetables. There is no time to protest. One time when I did refuse, someone behind me said it was inauspicious to say no to curry leaves.

As absurd as this may sound, Hazeena Seyad, author of Ravuthar Recipes, a collection of traditional Ravuthar style recipes, explains that this belief, which is prevalent in her hometown Tirunelveli as well, could very well be a myth created by vegetable sellers. “They usually do this to sell coriander leaves. By giving away free curry leaves, coriander leaves that tend to wilt sooner under the sun are sold too. That’s most probably where the notion came from,” she tells me.

The curry leaf conundrum, as I’d like to call it, begins here. What to do with the excess? Last month, I coaxed my mother into whipping up a karuveppilai kozhambu – a spicy, tart paste made using tamarind, garlic, pepper and lots of curry leaves, which goes perfectly with hot rice or dosas. Stored in the refrigerator, it can be used for up to a week.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I dropped a box of them at my mother-in-law’s place with an innocent “Oh, I had some extra, and developed a sudden craving for your karuvepillai podi” request. The dry condiment that is a great mixed with rice is made by grinding the leaves with cumin seeds, chana dal and dry red chilies. Truth be told, she did make it differently, adding some semi-roasted, semi-crushed curry leaves towards the very end, giving a whole different flavour and texture to the dry podi.

But despite my clever tactics, I never seemed to be able to finish the branch that was so mindlessly added to my bag, before my next trip to the vegetable shop. The leaves only piled up. So now I had two full boxes that I dreaded opening and the dream was a manifestation of this deep struggle.

The slightly bitter and herby leaves form an essential taste enhancer in Indian kitchens, south Indian to be specific. They are mainly used to temper dishes, from sambar to curries, to add a fresh, herby flavour. Deepa Bhasthi, a writer based out of Coorg, shares that her mother would air dry and powder the leaves and store them in bottles. “She’d add the powder to the dishes in the end and it gave the food an amazing fragrance. This is a good option if you don’t have access to fresh leaves,” she explains.

Archana Pidathala, author of Five Morsels of Love, a collection of heirloom recipes from her grandmother’s Andhra kitchen, too follows a similar method. “I sun dry them for two to three days and store them in a jar. I sometimes crush them and add the powder over anything, from eggs to even rotis. I sometimes knead it with the roti dough just like one would use kasuri methi,” she shares. 

I also found that both Deepa and Archana have two very distinct ways of using these leaves that are quite inventive. If you have access to tender green curry leaves, you could try Deepa’s version of this potato curry. “It’s a lot like aloo palak but you’ll need tender curry leaves for it. It’s amazing and has quite a different taste too, I don’t think anyone else in my family likes it,” she chuckles.

The tender curry leaves are first sautéed in oil and then the usual masala is added and the potatoes follow. “It is a dry curry but the fragrance of the curry leaves seeps into the potatoes,” Deepa adds.

Archana talks about a particularly delish sounding raita-like recipe native to the Karnataka region called the tambuli, in which curry leaves are sautéed in very little oil first. “I add cumin, black pepper and a couple of tablespoons of grated coconut, and grind it all together. It’s then whisked in curd with a little bit of salt. It’s not exactly raita. I also do the same when I have excess dill or doddapatre (Mexican mint),” Archana explains.

Chitra Agrawal, who lives in the US and runs a condiment company called Brooklyn Delhi, has another interesting recipe that makes use of quite a bit of curry leaves. “Just yesterday my husband made a pesto with carrot tops and tempered it with mustard seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves ground into the pesto for a herby flavour. It was delicious and a great way to use up leftover leaves,” she says.

While she surprised me by saying that they also liked flavouring popcorn and hash browns with curry leaves, I found a very quirky recipe that uses curry leaves. A 2016 piece in The Guardian introduced me to a zesty and very Indian cocktail whose not-so-secret ingredient is curry leaves! Called the Mumbai Martini, a handful of curry leaves, ginger slices, a dash of lemon juice and sugar syrup is mixed and shaken with vodka and finally strained into a chilled martini glass.

On how best to bring out the potent flavour of the curry leaves, Chitra says she rubs them between her fingers first to release their natural oils before frying them in oil. “I dry fry them as well before grinding in spice powders like saaru or huli. It’s important to completely dry the leaves when making a spice blend because if they have any moisture, the powder will not last as long. I sometimes grind them fresh when making coconut chutney. You can also freeze your curry leaves to make them last longer,” she adds.

As for meat delicacies, Archana recalls how her grandmother would sauté 10 to 12 leaves in a teaspoon of ghee, pour it over the meat curry and cover with a lid to help permeate its full flavour into the dish. Hazeena talks about a particular green chutney in which she marinates her mutton for her mutton pepper curry. “It’s a thick gravy, I grind a handful of curry leaves, shallots, tomatoes, green chilies, ginger and garlic to marinate the meat,” she says. Then in a pan a few more curry leaves are tempered in sesame oil along with red chilies followed by the marinated meat, coriander powder and lots of pepper powder. “Add hot water and allow the meat to cook until it’s done. This curry goes perfectly with rice, rotis, idli, dosa… pretty much anything,” Hazeena adds.

Curry leaves are also rich in vitamins and minerals and are often recommended to be consumed in full, sometimes forcefully, by elders. Hazeena also talks about a special hair oil her grandmothers would make for her as a child, one that she continues to use even today. This, I remembered, my mother did too.

“It’s considered very good for hair growth and my grandmother would heat coconut oil, add plenty of curry leaves and henna leaves and allow it to cool for a day. In the night the mixture is strained into a glass bottle. This makes me nostalgic – I’d carry the dark green oil in a bottle to my boarding school in Ooty. The oil would turn pale green and freeze in the cold weather. I always found it magical as a young girl,” she chortles.

While the name might be the most unimaginative – curry leaves, or sweet neem leaves or Murraya koenigii – there’s no contesting that the leaves add excellent flavour to dishes. They’re native to south India, but they’ve also travelled to south Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia where they are incorporated into local dishes as well.

However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the leaf finding a mention in a Sangam era poem. The poem, which appears in Perumponaatrupadai in the Patthu Paattu anthology, describes an unusual stir-fry recipe using curry leaves tossed in butter and juicy pomegranate arils!

Deepa who wrote about the poem is excited when I recall this. “After reading my piece, a home cook reached out to me, having decoded the entire recipe. I tried it as well and it was absolutely delicious.” Arthi Rajendran, the Coimbatore-based chef who was inspired by Deepa’s piece in the Mold, makes the poriyal (dry curry) using black pepper, shallots, green chilies and grated coconut. The result is other-worldly, Deepa vouches.


“Pomegranate Poriyal” - an Ancient Tamil Delicacy pulled right out of Sangam Literature . Food is a great way to understand a culture. A recipe so unusual and exciting such as this only makes you marvel at the creative and adventurous spirits of your ancestors! A stir-fry with fruit from ancient scriptures?? Who would have thought!!. The recipe is talked about in “Perumpāṇāṟṟuppaṭai“ - a poem in Patthu Paattu anthology of sangam literature. . The poet describes the dish as a delicacy served in vegetarian household for the guests. The scene is set in the old city of Kanchipuram. . The translation: . “... you will be given dishes made with freshly opened pomegranates mixed with warm butter from fragrant buttermilk of tawny cows, mixed with fresh curry leaves and black pepper.” . Amazing right! . The Recipe: . The recipe talks about Pomegranates, warm butter, curry leaves and pepper( a very rare and coveted spice at the time!). However, one naturally assumes that the recipe is not exhaustive- so, I went ahead and added shallots, green chillies, coconut and tadka to my recipe in hopes that the dish would have been something close to it . Also, I added the pome pearls at the very last after taking the skillet off the flame - wouldn’t wanna lose the nutrients, would we!? . Try it!! With the risk of sounding cocky, “You are most certainly going to love me for this recipe!” . Toodles! மீண்டும் சிந்திப்போம் !! . . . . . . . . #pomegranateporiyal #pomgranatestirfry #theskilletexpressions

A post shared by Arthi Rajendran (@the_skillet_expressions) on

The poem describes the inner and outer beauty of a woman and goes on to talk about a particular meal she laid out for a guest. Imagine garudan samba rice, kommati pomegranate (a variety especially used to make this dish) poriyal in which the fruit is tossed in butter with pepper and curry leaves, and baby mango (maavadu) pickle served on a plate. Looks like Sangam era on a plate garnished with shiny green curry leaves.

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