Cooking with curry leaves in Sri Lanka

Cooking with curry leaves in Sri Lanka

Zinara Rathnayake

Small, glossy and soft, fresh curry leaves are an integral part of Sri Lankan cooking. Karapincha or karuvepillai—Sinhala and Tamil for curry leaf plants—dot the backyards of our village homes in Sri Lanka, and grow in pots that cram the tiny balconies of urban Colombo. Eat your way through the emerald island and you’ll find it difficult to find a dish seasoned without curry leaves—their sweet, earthy fragrance is loved by all Sri Lankans. Think of creamy dals or a tangy chicken curry cooked with curry leaves, bringing together the flavours to complete a mouthwatering feast. Even if you live far away from the Indian Ocean island, these dishes are available through our Sri Lankan food delivery in the UK. 

Despite their name, curry leaves carry no relation to curry powder, a vibrant blend of grounded spices also often used in Sri Lankan cooking—Kolamba’s signature curry powder of 14 spices is also sold as part of our Lankan Larder food delivery in the UK. Part of the same botanical family of citruses and lemongrass, curry leaves do not have a commanding citrusy perfume. But they carry a beautiful, distinctive aroma of their own.  At home in Sri Lanka, curry leaves, mostly grown organically—like pandan and lemongrass—are often freshly picked from the garden before cooking. One of my sweet childhood memories is sniffing a bunch of fresh curry leaves my mother handpicked from the back garden. 

Often in Sri Lankan cooking, fresh curry leaves are added to the sizzling coconut oil. They sputter quickly and extract their sweet, earthy and subtle citrusy notes to the hot oil, merging with other herbs like mustard, cloves and fenugreek seeds. This inviting aroma of curry leaves sizzling in hot coconut oil wafts through our kitchen windows, a sort of fortuitous gesture to tell our neighbours that it's mealtime at home. Like with everything else in traditional island cooking, there’s no rule of how many curry leaves to use, but a handful—or a sprig or two—enhances the flavours of Sri Lankan food, rather than dominating it. 

Once the hot oil draws out the flavours of the aromatics, other ingredients like vegetables, meat, coconut milk and powdered spices are added to prepare the curry. While these leaves can elevate the flavours of any curry, you’ll often find them in lentils, subtly-spiced potato dishes, spicy chicken and seafood curries. All these island favourites find a place in Kolamba’s feasting boxes, Sri Lankan food delivered to your home in the UK.

But it’s not just the curries that are seasoned with this aromatic herb in Sri Lanka. Another common way is to use it as a garnish, frying the leaves in butter or oil to add as a crisped topping for kaha bath, an aromatic yellow-coloured rice prepared for special lunches; and scattered atop snack mixtures like spicy roasted peanuts often sold in roadside stalls. Sri Lankans also use curry leaves in wade or vada, crunchy lentil fritters, where fresh leaves are added to the lentil batter before deep-frying. Although fresh curry leaves in curry-based dishes are usually not eaten—because they are chewy—most Sri Lankans love the crunch of deep-fried curry leaves.

These common kitchen uses aside, curry leaves are also hailed for their medicinal value as they are rich in vitamins and calcium. It’s also a reason why this common Sri Lankan herb finds a place in a morning gruel called kola kanda, with a texture slightly similar to a Chinese congee. Favoured by all Sri Lankan mothers—as they believe it’s a drink that gives their children brainpower—curry leaves are blended with other herbs to extract their juice. This extract is boiled with crushed cooked rice and coconut milk to prepare the drink, often served as a breakfast staple similar to a smoothie. 

It’s easy to grow a curry leaf plant at home in a pot or you can grab a bunch from a Sri Lankan or South Indian grocer, but keep in mind that fresh curry leaves quickly lose their texture, aroma and taste when they are exposed to the sun. Wrap the sprigs in paper towels, and store them refrigerated to last them longer.

A star ingredient that binds together the varied flavours of Sri Lankan dishes, it’s fair to say curry leaves are the heart and soul of island cooking. A Sri Lankan curry is not complete without the flavours and aromas of this often homegrown herb.   

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