Botanical Name: Murraya koenigii
Common Names: Curry Leaf, Karapincha, Kari Patta, Sweet Neem, Meetha Neem, Kitha Neem
Origin: The foothills of the Himalayas, and now naturalised across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Description: Curry Leaf is a small evergreen tree that grows to 6 metres in height. It has aromatic, compound leaves and clusters of small, fragrant, white flowers followed by 1 cm berries that turn dark purple-black when ripe. The berries don’t have a culinary use and the seeds are toxic to humans so shouldn’t be consumed. However, its dense canopy produces an abundance of aromatic, pungent, fern-like leaves that are used to flavour curry dishes and also used medicinally.
Cultivation: Curry Leaf thrives in tropical and sub-tropical areas but also grows in cooler climates if protected from very cold winters. It prefers a sunny or semi-shaded location with free-draining soil that has been enriched with compost, but will grow in almost all conditions. It can be frost-tender when young but well-established trees will survive even severe frost and cold winters. Curry Leaf is drought tolerant and makes an excellent ornamental shrub or screening plant. It also grows very well in a large pot and is an attractive addition to an outdoor BBQ area. Plants can be pruned to either a single trunk as a small tree or left as a bushy shrub. Tip pruning will encourage fresh, leafy growth ensuring there is always ample fresh green foliage for cooking.
While Curry Leaf is a hardy plant, it’s not considered a low-maintenance tree. When it flowers during summer, birds adore the seeds and spread them in their droppings. Therefore, this plant can have significant weed potential and some gardeners choose to trim all the flowers before they set seed as berries. The roots will also sucker readily if disturbed, sprouting new trees. These can be pruned off at ground level and treated with boiling water to prevent regrowth.
In our garden in the Lockyer Valley in SE Queensland, the Curry Leaf attracts a hive of activity with thousands of bees and other insects who arrive when it flowers in spring and early summer. It’s also hugely attractive to large numbers of birds when the berries appear in late summer including the seasonal, glossy, black Eastern Koel and his brown spotted partner.
Propagation: New Curry Leaf plants can be easily propagated from both cuttings and seed. They will also frequently self-sow and germinate under or near the tree where they can be lifted and transplanted. 10 cm long stem cuttings with a few leaves will root easily in 2 to 3 weeks if kept warm and moist. Place them in either a glass of water on the kitchen bench or into a light, free-draining cutting mix in pots or trays. Each ripe berry also has a seed that can be germinated with fresh seed having the greatest germination rate. Berries can be used whole or the flesh can be cleaned from around the seed. Sow into seed-raising mix in pots or trays and keep warm and damp.
Flavour Profile: Meaty, warm and floral. The major flavour compound is 1-phenylethanethiol.
Culinary Uses: Curry Leaf has been used medicinally and in cooking in India and Sri Lanka for hundreds of years. The leaves have the strongest flavour and aroma when used fresh in curries, vegetable dishes, soups, chutneys, pickles and sauces. They’re often fried first in oil before added to other spices. The fresh leaves can also be used on the BBQ to add a warm, aromatic flavour to fish, meat and potatoes. Pile a large handful of leaves onto the BBQ plate and place the fish or meat on top to cook covered with a deep lid.
When picked fresh, Curry Leaf has a mild, citrusy fragrance that erupts into a floral, musky aroma when crushed. They can be used liberally because the flavour is subtle and nothing like curry powder.
Curry Leaf partners well with vegetables such as eggplant and can be used in marinades for slow-cooked lamb, in tomato-based prawn or seafood curry, and with mustard seeds in a red lentil dhal. Leaves can also be added to bread dough before baking or cooked in oil or ghee before drizzling over eggs.