Curry leaves sautéed and softened in ghee (clarified butter) or coconut oil adds a delightful flavor to your curries. This herbal leaf is a signature flavor of South India, and an unavoidable ingredient in several Southeast Asian dishes like curries, dals, soups, and savories.
What to do if you don’t have curry leaves for your recipe? Lack of curry leaf shouldn’t bother you. This article brings home to you the best curry leaf substitutes you can use in a pinch.
What Are Curry Leaves?
Curry leaves, also known as sweet neem leaves, are the foliage of the curry tree (Murraya koenigii). This tree is native to India, and its aromatic leaves are popularly used in medicinal and culinary applications.
Don’t mistake curry leaves with curry powder, both are different. Curry powder is a spice mixture (coriander, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne) usually used along with curry leaves in Indian curries, dals, and rice dishes.
What do curry leaves taste like?
Curry leaves are highly aromatic with a herbaceous lemony scent and a well pronounced pungent taste. They exhibit a flavor that reflects some elements of lemongrass and anise.
These green leaves do not add a dominant taste to your dishes but fortify the taste of your dish to a robust one.
How Are Curry Leaves Used In Cooking?
Sauté and soften the curry leaves in ghee (clarified butter) or oil and then add sauteed leaves and oil to your curry.
In Indian cooking, a tadka with curry leaves is made and added to the dish. Tadka is a mixture of curry leaves, mustard seeds, and cumin that are sauteed together in ghee or oil.
You may also sprinkle the sundried curry leaves over your savories and curries. Some prefer to use curry-leaf flavored oil for cooking.
Whatever ways you may use it, always the fresh curry leaves have the strongest flavor and aroma.
What’s A Good Curry Leaves Substitute?
Curry leaves are an important ingredient in several Southeast Asian dishes, especially, in South Indian cuisines. These leaves are very difficult to find in the US and Europe that means you may require a substitute ingredient in its place. Honestly, their unique pungent aroma is nearly impossible to replicate, despite there are seven curry leaf alternatives to use in an emergency.
Lime zest can deliver the lemony and citrusy taste of curry leaves though not perfect. Like curry leaves, lime zest also very well complements most other ingredients in curries and other dishes. To your advantage, it’s an inexpensive alternative and easier to find as well.
Using a blend of lemon zest and chopped basil leaves is still a better option to mimic the flavor of curry leaves.
Remember, the zest of one lime is equal to a spring of curry leaves.
The sweet and savory notes of bay leaves have a lot in common with curry leaves. They both boost the flavor of dishes in the same manner, used in Indian and Mediterranean dishes. Also, bay leaves are commonly available across the world. Using bay leaves in stews, soups, stir-fries, curries, meat, and fish dishes mitigates the absence of curry leaves.
Use a single bay leaf to replace 2 springs of curry leaves (about 20 small leaves). Note, usually, bay leaves are removed from the dish just before serving, unlike curry leaves that can be eaten or discarded.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
The citrusy notes of Kaffir (makrut/Thai) lime leaves are something very similar to curry leaves. Instead of curry leaves, you can easily use them in curries, stir-fries, soups, and rice dishes. These lime leaves are just for flavoring your dishes and not to be eaten.
Use either whole or chopped leaves and let them simmer in the dish for a while. About five Makrut lime leaves are enough to swap 1 spring of curry leaves.
Lemon zest has a citrusy flavor that comes close to curry leaves as lime zest does. The oil from the rind of lemon also provides a pungent note besides the tangy-citrusy taste.
It goes well with most Asian dishes that call for curry leaves. You can sprinkle lemon zest over your dish just before the completion of cooking. One teaspoon of lemon zest is equivalent to 1 spring of curry leaves.
Lemon Balm Leaves
Lemon balm (melissa) leaves have a pungent, minty aroma like curry leaves. They induce a mild citrusy flavor when added to your dish. Use 4 lemon balm leaves to swap 1 spring of curry leaves. Always use the fresh leaves when using them in your dishes. They work best in soups, stews, curries, and savory dishes. Generally, lemon balm leaves are removed before serving the dish.
Like lime zest, lime leaves also have a pungent aroma and flavor that is citrusy and slightly bitter as well. However, these leaves have a more intense flavor than curry leaves, so use them sparingly and only in emergencies.
Lime leaves are a decent substitute for curry leaves in a few Asian dishes like meat, fish, rice, and curries. Use up 4 lime leaves to replace 10 curry leaves.
Basil leaves, staple to Italian and French cuisines, can be a worthy replacement for curry leaves in most dishes. Basil is both pungent and mildly sweet with a strong minty aroma, somewhat similar to curry leaves though not a perfect substitute.
Most chefs recommend adding a few drops of lemon juice or a pinch of lemon zest to basil leaves for achieving nearly the same taste as curry leaves.
Basil leaves work best in soups and savory dishes that call for curry leaves. Use them in the same amount of curry leaves required in your recipe.
The Bottom Line
The vibrant green glossy curry leaves are a must-have flavorful addition to several Asian dishes, particularly, to a wide range of South Indian dishes. They provide a mild pungent kick and pleasant citrusy notes that boost the overall taste of your dish. If you have run short of these leaves, we would recommend lime zest, bay leaves, Kaffir lime leaves as the most satisfactory substitute for curry leaves.
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