Best New Chef Niven Patel says that curry leaves are the key to unlocking the flavors of South Indian food. And you don't need a specialty market to find them.

By Adina Steiman
May 27, 2020
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If you've never cooked with curry leaves, it can be tricky to describe their unique appeal. Even 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef Niven Patel, who cooks with them often at his farm-to-table Indian restaurant in Miami, Ghee, can get stuck for words. "It’s the aroma, right? This very unique, inherently Indian aroma," Patel says. Even though he grows his own "monster" curry-leaf trees in his own backyard, the difference that the herb makes in Indian cooking can be hard to pin down in words. But the difference they make in everything from the simplest dal to the most complex curries is unmistakeable. 

Cedric Angeles; Foodcollection/Getty Images

It might be easier to describe the amazing qualities of curry leaves by describing what they aren't. First off, curry leaves don't taste at all like curry powder. In fact, the allure of curry leaves is less about their flavor and more about their scent. "The flavor is from the aroma," Patel points out. And to capture that aroma (which some flail at describing with words like "nutty" and "citrusy"), one thing is clear: You're going to need to fry the delicate, tapered leaves in oil rather than simply tossing them into a pot of dal or curry to infuse. 

"You don’t really simmer [curry leaves] in a braise—they get muted," Patel says. "But if you throw them into hot oil with some mustard seeds and cumin, you're actually infusing the oil with that flavor." That essential technique of "tempering" aromatics in oil or ghee and then stirring that oil into a dish is called vagar in Patel's Gujarati tradition, but also goes by several names across the Indian subcontinent, like tadka, tarka, and thadka. 

But there is a catch. Unlike garam masala, curry leaves aren't usually available at non-Indian supermarkets. If you're not lucky enough to have an Indian market nearby, there is hope, though. Thankfully, many curry-leaf aficionados grow their own curry-leaf trees in their backyards, and sell their harvest on Etsy. Order up a bunch or two, and follow Patel's ideas below to savor that irreplaceable flavor for yourself.

Stir a Curry-Leaf Vagar Into Your Next Batch of Dal

To get started with curry leaves, cook up a dish of dal (split hulled legumes or lentils). "The simplest dish you can really taste the curry leaf in is a dal. It’s so basic, but so magical. You wonder, 'how did I get all this flavor out of all these lentils?'" Patel says. Dal can range from split chickpeas (chana dal) to red lentils, split hulled pigeon peas (toor dal) or split hulled mung beans (moong dal), but split yellow peas from the supermarket are a good stand-in.

To keep things simple, Patel says, just boil your choice of dal or lentils in water with a bit of salt and turmeric until tender, then finish with a curry-leaf vagar. "Heat up oil with black mustard seeds until they pop, then add dried chile... and some chopped curry leaves" and stir until they sizzle. "Then stir it right into the dal."

The simple combination of dal, vagar, and seasonal vegetables is a staple on the menu of Patel's restaurant Ghee, since it's an excellent way to show off simply cooked fresh vegetables, too. "We do a dal tarka every day, and it usually has greens and squash and tomatoes from our farm," Patel says. Once you've mastered Patel's technique, try out this seductive dal from the South Indian state of Kerala, too.

Make an Easy South Indian Coconut Chutney

Patel also raves about the nuance that curry leaves bring to South Indian-style coconut chutney. "Curry leaf and coconut is one of the best combinations," he says. After blending grated unsweetened coconut with ingredients like yogurt, ginger, shallot, chile, and herbs, coconut chutney is still missing something—until you add the curry leaves. "Without the curry leaves, the coconut chutney tastes flat. It’s hard to describe it," Patel explains. But if you fry curry leaves in oil and fold everything into the chutney, it becomes an addictive partner for dosas, idlis, or even scrambled eggs. This South Indian pineapple-coconut pachadi is another way to let curry leaves shine.

Use Curry Leaves to Flavor a Vinaigrette

One of Patel's most brilliant ways to deploy curry leaves? In a vinaigrette. "It gets thrown onto everything at the restaurant," Patel says. "Crack [pop] mustard seeds in olive oil, then add sliced garlic, chopped curry leaves, and chopped cilantro. Let it cool down, and the green herbs stay green. Then we add a mix of lemon and lime juice and a pinch of jaggery." Any crisp raw vegetable, from crunchy cucumbers to ripe tomatoes, would sing with a drizzle of curry-leaf vinaigrette.

Add Depth to a Coconut Vegetable Curry

Just like coconut chutney, coconut vegetable curries (often referred to as avial) are particularly compatible with curry leaves. "We do this very traditional South Indian-style coconut curry," Patel notes. Simmering bite-size vegetables until just tender, then stirring in a simple blended mix of unsweetened coconut, chiles, garlic, and ginger creates the base. Then it's time for the vagar (aka tarka) of curry leaves, which get stirred in as the glorious finishing touch."You don’t need to add those heavy spice powders or garam masala to the curry," Patel says. "That goes for a lot of our cooking at the restaurant. We try to keep the product in front and try to keep it very simple. Thai chiles, garlic, and ginger and a simple tarka of curry leaf and that’s all you need."