Say it with me now, “Curry leaves are not related to curry powder.” Once more, “Curry leaves are not related to curry powder.” Curry, curry powder, and curry leaves are very often misused and misunderstood, so before we more bring shame upon our family and friends let’s clear up the confusion around these terms. Once that’s out of the way you can confidently stroll into your local Indian market, pick up some curry leaves, and enjoy the most wonderfully delicious ingredient you’ve never heard of.
The term “curry” as we use it in the west is a Western invention. It’s an anglicized version of the Tamil word kari which means “sauce.” Curry doesn’t describe one particular dish any more than the word sauce describes one particular dish. Curry is used to refer to a variety of meat or vegetable dishes cooked with or without a sauce/gravy. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Southeast Asia, Africa, Britain, Japan and the Caribbean all have their own curry dishes and each one tastes different from the others.
Another common mistake is to think that all curries are spicy, as in hot and spicy. When a curry is described as “a heavily spiced dish,” that usually means there are a lot of spices used in the dish, not that it is necessarily going to set your mouth on fire. On most restaurant menus the dishes that will bring the heat are labeled, but if you’re like me and want to turn a mild dish into a surface-of-the-sun hot dish you can usually request that they make it as hot as you want.
Curry powder is a mixture of spices as varied as the countries and cultures they come from. Most mixtures will typically include turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, and red pepper. Additional ingredients such as ginger, garlic, asafoetida, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper are also included in many variations.
Another term thrown around when talking curries is masala. A masala is a mixture of spices used in the cuisines of Southern Asia. It can be a blend of dry roasted spices, or a paste made from a mixture of spices and other ingredients such as ginger, onions, garlic, and chilli paste. Garam Masala is an even more specific spice mixture, coming from North Indian and South Asian countries and may include red chili peppers, dried garlic, ginger powder, sesame, mustard seed, turmeric, coriander, malibar leaves, star anise and fennel. Yes, garam is sometimes translated as “hot” but in truth the word is referring to the intensity of the spices, not the amount of heat produced, so again, there may be chilis in a garam masala, or there may not be. If you are unsure, ask or look at the label.
Curry leaves are one of my secret weapons. Like sriracha, anchovies, or pork fat, the addition of curry leaves brings an extra layer of flavor to a dish without being dominant. But remember, curry leaves are not related to curry powder. If you take a nibble of a raw curry leaf it will not taste like your favorite curry dish at Sitar or the Curry Pot, it will taste like disappointment with a hint of citrus.
When cooked, curry leaves taste like, well, curry leaves. Google can’t help you with a substitute and whatever you do, don’t try to substitute curry powder for curry leaves or the Hindu goddess Annapurna will personally punish you in your sleep. Their distinct bright, deep, green and pungent flavor is easy to incorporate into your cooking. Fry them in hot oil then use the flavored oil to cook fish, vegetables, or brush the oil on bread as you would any other herb infused oil. You can add the leaves at the beginning of cooking, quickly fry in ghee or oil, then chop into a dish; or add later in the cooking to give a more subtle flavoring. Like their visual doppelganger the bay leaf, curry leaves can be tossed raw into almost any dish to give it a Punjabi remix and may cause a Bollywood musical to break out in your mouth.