What Are Curry Leaves?

How to buy, store, and cook with the spice, plus a little bit about its origins.

Curry leaves on a plate with Spice Cabinet badge

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Curry Leaves

Description: Small, slender green leaves that grow on the Murraya koenigii plant

Flavor profile: Earthy, herbal, citrusy

Related cuisines: South Asian, especially South Indian, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani cuisines

Storage: In a zipper-lock bag, fresh curry leaves will last about two weeks in the refrigerator and two months in the freezer. Dried leaves will last about six months.

“You haven't really cooked if you’ve never cooked with curry leaves,” says Barkha Cardoz, founder of Cardoz Legacy, an organization where she engages in culinary-centered projects in honor of her late husband, Floyd Cardoz. And no, she’s not referring to those curry powders made up of different spices that foreigners tend to associate with Indian cuisine. 

Curry leaves are a beauty unto themselves, full of oils that add a citrusy flavor when used in cooking. The ingredient is most notably a South Asian one, and is found especially in South Indian, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani dishes. It’s quite unique in flavor, and it can be used fresh or dry, ground or whole, often bloomed in oil to release its aroma and flavorful oils. 

To find out more about curry leaves, including its origins, how to shop for them, and how they’re used, we spoke to Cardoz and Anand Prasad, founder of Prasad’s Curry Leaf, a curry leaf farm in Los Angeles that Prasad started with seeds he and his family carried from India, for some guidance. 

What Are Curry Leaves?

Curry leaves come from the Murraya koenigii plant, which is native to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. Belonging to the same family as citrus and rue, the tree grows in tropical climates to about 20 feet tall. Literature dating back to the 1st century A.D. references the use of curry leaves to flavor vegetables. They’ve also been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to aid symptoms of everything from diabetes to high cholesterol.

Four Curry leaves on white backdrop

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Aside from its citrusy notes, the flavor of curry leaves is hard to pinpoint. It’s often described as having the flavor of the spice asafoetida, and can be slightly bitter and pungent. It contains the compounds pinene, which is present as an aroma molecule in eucalyptus and orange, plus marijuana; sabinene, which is found in marjoram, black pepper, nutmeg; and caryophyllene, found in black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, all of which give it a complex flavor with herbal, floral, woodsy, and citrusy notes.

How to Buy and Store Curry Leaves

There is nothing quite like the flavor and aroma you’ll get from fresh curry leaves, but they can be harder to come by than dried ones. You can usually find fresh ones at South Asian grocery stores like Patel Brothers, as well as online from places like Kalustyan’s.

When shopping for fresh leaves, Cardoz recommends looking for small leaves, which are younger and more tender. She preps them by first removing them from the base of their tough central stem, which doesn’t hold much flavor, and wiping—not washing—them clean, then puts them in a zipper-lock bag before storing in the fridge for at least two weeks or the freezer for up to two months.

Dried curry leaves are hardly a concession, however. “Nothing can be beat by fresh curry leaves,” says Prasad. Their flavor and aroma is much stronger than the dried leaves. Even when seeking dried, though, Cardoz recommends starting with fresh if at all possible and drying them yourself, which will give you more flavor mileage than buying dried leaves of an unknown age. You dry the leaves in the sun or in a dehydrator, then transfer them to zipper-lock bags with a silica gel desiccant packet to ensure they don't grow moldy.

Ground curry leaves are also fairly popular on the market. Prasad has a version in collaboration with Burlap & Barrel, but you can also find ground curry leaves at most international spice markets. 

How to Cook With Curry Leaves

“I can’t remember anything I make without curry leaves,” says Cardoz. It’s commonly used in tadka, a process in which spices are bloomed in hot oil or ghee and then used as a finisher on top of dishes like dal. Prasad echoes the same statement about the importance of curry leaves in Indian cuisine, noting, “If I go into the kitchen and there are no curry leaves, how is there going to be a tadka?”

“It's something that you put in for the aroma, for texture, for crunch,” says Cardoz. “It just adds so much flavor.” While some prefer to take the curry leaves out of a dish before serving, similar to when cooking with bay leaves, Cardoz is among the folks who look forward to eating it. 


“My kids will pull it out,” she says. “I say ‘give it to me, I’ll eat it.’” She also likes to fry the leaves separately until crispy to add a crunchy topping to whatever she’s serving. 

While curry leaves are often used in tadka as a finishing flavor and aroma addition to dishes, they can also be cooked into a recipe as a base aromatic ingredient. Even then, they’re best bloomed in oil first. Ground curry leaves can also be used in the same way. Cardoz mentioned that when she makes a dish like peas and potatoes in a tomato sauce, for example, she’ll start by blooming one or two leaves in the oil before adding her onions, garlic, ginger, and any other aromatic ingredients. She lets the curry leaves sit in the sauce as it simmers so they can further release their flavors. 

“They're 99 cents at an Indian grocery store,” says Cardoz. “Just add them to whatever you're cooking to try it out and see—you'll be amazed.” For 99 cents, it’s hard to argue with that logic.