THERE are a few plants both my grandmother and mother regarded as “must-have” culinary plants in our backyard garden. Among them was the curry leaf tree. Curry leaves weren’t readily available in small quantities where we lived.
My favourite dish was Chinese-styled chicken curry with potatoes, which was my grandmother’s recipe. Cooking the dish was a family effort. Mum would slaughter a whole chicken (bought or home-bred) and dad would help pound the ingredients using a mortar and pestle. He wore sunglasses to protect his eyes.
Meanwhile, my sister and I were tasked with the preparations, cooking and washing up. We often had teary eyes from cutting the onions. I can still remember the pungent aroma of the curry leaves mixed with the curry powder spices that wafted from the wok during the frying process. These experiences have become cherished memories.
When I moved to my new house, I planted a curry leaf tree near my kitchen. My tree is 14 years old now and still growing strong. It has served me well. Sometimes neighbours would drop by for some freshly-plucked curry leaves to use in their cooking. In return, they’d reward me with freshly-made vadai, curry puff or fritters.
I hope you have a happy and enjoyable Mother’s Day this weekend, spending quality time with your mum and family. If you or your mum love cooking or gardening, do consider growing something useful like the curry leaf tree.
Scientific name: Murraya koenigii
Synonym: Bergera koenigii
Family: Rutaceae (citrus family)
Common names: Curry Leaf Tree, Indian Curry Tree, Curry Bush, Daun Kari (Malay), Kariveppilai (Tamil), Karipatta (Hindi), Gali Ye (Chinese).
Rutaceae members include the aromatic citrus plants such as lime, kaffir lime, kumquat, orange, lemon, grapefruit, pomelo, citron, calamansi, tangerine and Citrus myrtifolia, the lime used to make Campari, an alcoholic liquer. Its non-citrus members are euodia (Euodia ridleyi), wood apple (Limonia acidissima), kemuning (Murraya paniculata) and rue (Ruta graveolens).
Murraya koenigii is a large shrub which can grow to the size of a small tree. It reaches a height of 6m tall with a trunk of 40cm. It’s a long-lasting perennial.
It is native to India and Indo-China. This semi-deciduous tree is found in the tropical and subtropical regions. The leaves are smooth and shiny-green. They are bipinnately-arranged with each compound leaf composed of eight to 24 leaflets lined up two by two along a leaf stalk (petiole).
The leaves are aromatic and release a strong fragrance when cut or bruised. They are the most valuable part of the plant and have culinary usage.
The tree flowers intermittently a few times a year. The flowers are small but mildly fragrant. They are white, trumpet-shaped and radially symmetrical with five petals. They are arranged in terminal inflorescences in clusters of 60 to 90 flowers each.
The fruits look like tiny cherries. They start green and turn dark red to almost black as they ripen. Each fruit contains a fleshy pulp and one or two seeds. The pulp is edible but the seeds are poisonous.
HOW TO GROW
You can grow it in the ground or in a container. The easiest way is to get a seedling from a nursery specialising in herb plants.
Via seeds and root suckers.
Full sun is vital.
Fertile soil with good drainage.
Moderate requirement. Established plants are quite drought tolerant.
Apply compost or a balanced organic fertiliser once a fortnight for potted plants. Not really necessary for established plants grown on the ground.
Trim regularly to a compact shape and manageable height. The plant will bounce back quickly and reshoot even after hard pruning.
PEST AND DISEASES
Prone to attack by leaf beetles. Just prune off all the branches with infected leaves and dispose properly. It will spring back with new leaves and branches in no time. It’s also a host plant for the lime butterfly and common Mormon butterfly. You can choose to remove the caterpillars or let them become lovely butterflies that will light up your garden.
The leaves are best used fresh. Any surplus can be stored in the chiller or frozen for a few days.
Frozen leaves can be used directly in your cooking and need not be defrosted. Drying the leaves is not recommended as there will be little aroma left.