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What is a Curry Tree?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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The curry tree is a tropical to subtropical tree native to India. As you might imagine from the name, the leaves of the curry tree are used in Southeast Asian cooking, and they are particularly popular in India and Sri Lanka. In addition for being grown as a useful culinary tree, the curry tree is also grown for its attractive foliage and aromatic flowers. In regions of the world where the climate is favorable for cultivating curry trees, these trees can be found at some garden suppliers, and in Asian markets, especially markets which focus on Indian food.

This tree is formally known as Murraya koenigii, and it is also sometimes referred to as the curry-leaf tree. In the wild, it can grow up to 20 feet (six meters) tall, with a smooth trunk, simple elongated leaves, and dainty white flowers which produce a strong aroma during the blooming season. The flowers develop into black berries, which are incidentally toxic, so they should be avoided.

Curry leaves are used in a variety of Southeast Asian dishes, typically being toasted in oil in the cooking pan before other ingredients are added. The leaves add a distinctive aroma and flavor to the finished dish, and they are said to be beneficial for digestion in addition to being flavorful. In some regions, consumers even chew the leaves straight.

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The “curry” in the name can be a bit confusing, as the curry tree does not produce leaves with a flavor like that of curry powder. The name is a reference to the Tamil word kari, which refers to any sort of stewed dish, especially one with vegetables, rather than the spicy dishes flavored with turmeric which many Westerners associate with the word “curry.”

Curry trees thrive in USDA zones nine through 11, and they prefer full to part sun and well drained soil. Many gardeners amend their soil with things like peat to promote healthy drainage, allowing the tree to dry out completely between waterings. Annual pruning will help the tree produce more flavorful leaves by promoting new growth; the leaves can be harvested at any time and used fresh for the best flavor. Curry leaves can also be dried or frozen for later use.

Both seeds and root suckers can be used to propagate the curry tree. If growing from seed, it is a good idea to use seeds which are as fresh as possible, because the seeds do not keep well.

Some people confuse the curry tree with the curry leaf plant, also known as Helichrysum italicum. These two plants are not the same thing; the curry leaf plant has a strong odor of curry, rather than the unique odor of curry leaves, and it is native to the Mediterranean. It is also a low-growing plant, rather than a tree, and the leaves are unmistakably not curry leaves.

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anon249967
Post 5

Our curry tree supplies us with very tasty berries which have not harmed me yet. Where does it say they are 'toxic'?

anon130354
Post 4

you have not cooked curry until you have used curry leaves. being from Durban the capital city of India outside India, we are blessed to be able to have the luxury of the very best and worst Indian cuisine. curry trees grow like weeds. the leaves are no surprise but a essential part of any stew type cooking.

But let me explain the worst curry: lots of chili powder, hot as hell and no flavor, especially from take aways trying to make a quick buck from their bunny chows (a Durban delite). But the word soon gets around.

closerfan12
Post 3

What an interesting article! I was googling vegetable curry recipes and somehow ended up here, but I'm glad I did.

I have always been fascinated by international cuisine, but I've just recently gotten into Indian and Pakistani food, so I'm really trying to learn as much as I can about all the spices and things that they use.

This article was so informative, and I really like all the little details you included to keep it moving along -- really nicely done. I will definitely be on the lookout for curry leaves next time I go to the store!

lightning88
Post 2

This is so interesting -- I'm glad that you mentioned how the curry leaves taste differently than curry powder though. Otherwise I might be tempted to pick some up next time I go to the Indian grocery store, and I would end up with a very interesting tasting lamb curry recipe.

I bet it would still be good, but I don't really like surprise tastes in my food.

How exactly would you say the taste differs between curry from the tree or plant? I am really very curious to try curry tree leaves, now that I've read about them, but again, I like to know what I'm getting in to when it comes to food.

Are they suitable for a vegetarian curry, do you think? Of are they better suited for meat based curries, like a chicken tikka masala recipe?

What do you think?

TunaLine
Post 1

Wow, this is so cool! After reading this, I really want to grow a curry tree in my backyard just to use in my tikka masala recipes!

I am really big into cooking Indian curry recipes, so I use a lot of curry on a weekly basis.

It might actually be even cheaper to buy the tree and grow it than to buy all the curry powder I use -- I really am that much of a curry fanatic.

Thanks for the cool article, wisegeek!

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