Aromatic, Flavorful Curry Leaves

Wootens Produce of Kauai is celebrating its 18th year of farming on the island. John Wooten’s farming practices are based on what he learned more than 50 years ago when he read Robert Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.

What’s growing: Avocados, arugula, atamoya, bananas, basil, beets, bok choy, breadfruit, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, chard, chicu, cilantro, coconuts, cucumbers, curry leaves, dill, egg fruit, eggplant, fennel, ginger, hot peppers, jackfruit, kale, lemons, limes, longan, radishes, rambutan, papayas, parsley, Indian curry leaves, lettuce, mangoes, mint, mizuna, mountain apples, soursop, tomatoes, tot soi, turnips and turmeric.


Curry leaves come from a small, deciduous tree that grows wild in the foothills of the Himalayas of India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Indian emigrants took curry leaves to Fiji, while others made them an important ingredient in Tamil and South African cooking. Often used in curries, the Indian name is meetha neem, which translates to “sweet neem leaves.” When bruised, fresh leaves are intensely aromatic, giving off a musky, spicy odor with hints of citrus. The taste is warm and pleasant, lemony and slightly bitter.

Season: Curry leaves can be harvested year-round.

What to look for: The Wootens sell curry leaves that are still attached to small branches. Slender stems may have as many as 20 small, bright-green leaves.

Storage: Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. They also can be frozen.

Tip: Dried leaves have little flavor and doubling the amount in a recipe has very little effect on taste.

Preparation: I like to add curry leaves to a pot of simmering beans or soup. Their pleasant scent fills our home and the meal is infused with an earthy, bright flavor. Cooked leaves become soft with an addictive flavor.

Curry leaves pair well with fish, lamb, lentils, rice, seafood, most vegetables, cardamom, chili peppers, cilantro, coconut, cumin, garlic, mustard seed and turmeric.

In south India, the leaves are stripped from stems right before they are added to the dish. They can be used in long-simmered meat stews and fish curries or during the last five minutes of cooking. Chopped or crushed leaves are used in chutneys, relishes, and marinades for seafood. Sri Lankan curry mixtures often include curry leaves.

Health benefits: Leaves are used in Ayurvedic medicine as they are believed to have anti-diabetic properties and improve digestion.

Wootens Produce of Kauai can be found at: Grocery: Vim and Vigor, Papaya’s Natural Foods & Cafe, Hoku Foods Natural Market, Harvest Market; Farmers Market: Kapaa Wednesdays at 3 p.m.; Restaurants: Kintaro, The Garden Cafe. For custom orders (minimum $10), call 823-6807.

SRI LANKAN CURRY POWDER Most Westerners think of curry as spicy, but the blend of spices can range from mild to peppery. This recipe makes a mild flavoring, which is added to curry dishes. Whole spices can be found in the bulk department of most health food stores. * 1 tablespoon uncooked rice

* 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
* 1/2 cinnamon stick
* 3 green cardamom pods
* 3 whole cloves
* 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
* 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
* 2 sprigs curry leaves, stripped from stem

Dry-roast rice in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. When fragrant and amber, reduce heat to low and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir frequently to prevent burning, until the blend is aromatic and dark brown.

Let cool and grind finely. Sift and stir a teaspoon or two into curries just before serving.