A Pocket Full of Curry Leaves

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Categories: Food & Dining

My travels to India gave me a huge appreciation for the vast and vibrant landscapes, traditions, and, of course, food. The mountains in the north with temperate climate have a wealth of tea, turmeric, and rice. In the capital of New Delhi, there are spicy tandoori dishes with rich smoky sauces.  Rajasthan is home to many vegetarians, and the food has a unique richness due to the amount of butter, lentils, and chiles used in their cooking. I particularly love the south of India, where the economy thrives on spices and coconut. In addition to cooking with the flesh and milk from the coconut, coconut oil has many uses. The outer shells are made into bowls, and coconut leaves are made into brooms and roofs for rural huts. Chili peppers grow in abundance in the south and are essential for cooking the fish caught fresh from the sea.

My first visit to India was to Goa, on the southwest coast. I spent days at the beach, walking by huts and food stalls with clay tandoor ovens buried in the sand. I’ll never forget the first time I saw fresh naan bread cooking on the interior walls of the tandoor, while whole fish, bathed in spices cooked on a spear over the hot coals. Further south, I visited Cochin, where fishermen cast their huge nets from boats nested in the sand on the beach. Every morning I watched as the nets full of fish were pulled up by multiple ropes suspended from huge wooden beams. It was in Cochin that I had my first dosa, the paper-thin rice pancake filled with potatoes, spices, and chutney. They’re most common for breakfast, served with tea and fried bananas.

At a guesthouse in Cochin, I was allowed to assist the cook each morning as he prepared the curries for lunch. Just outside the kitchen door was a coconut palm tree and a curry leaf tree. He would pick coconuts each morning, and crack them open with a machete. After pouring the clear coconut milk into a pitcher, we shaved the flesh inside the shells to be used for salads and chutney. I was most intrigued by the curry leaf tree. The pungent aroma was so unique, and I often carried a sprig of leaves in my pocket to smell throughout the day. The cook would fry them in coconut oil with cashews to serve as a snack during cocktail hour. He also put the whole leaves into stews, and ground them into a paste with garlic and ginger to go into a fish curry.

When I got home, I was delighted to find fresh curry leaves at my local international supermarket. The owner knows how much I love them, and when I shop, he brings me his freshest leaves from the back stockroom. Recently, I met an Indian doctor in Oklahoma, and I told him about my fascination with curry leaves. He told me he had a curry tree at home, and I couldn’t believe it. One morning I found a pot on my front porch with a small curry tree. He had dug it up from his garden and left it as a gift.

If I had to choose one of my favorite Indian dishes using fresh curry leaves, it would be my Garlic Shrimp. It takes minutes to prepare, and it brings back many memories of southern India that I loved so much. Take the time to seek out curry leaves, and use them in a variety of ways. Several of my Indian recipes require them. You can get my recipes at chefshannon.com.

Garlic Shrimp with Curry Leaves

Serves 4 - When I was in Southern India we cooked everything with fresh curry leaves.  They give the most unique and fresh flavor to all kinds of dishes.  This shrimp recipe takes just minutes to prepare, and it will be one of your favorites.  I buy fresh curry leaves at my local Indian grocery store or international grocery store.  If you can’t find them fresh, you can use the frozen ones.


  • 16 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil

  • 1 teaspoon green chile (jalapeno or serrano), minced

  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 15 fresh curry leaves

  • 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped

Wash shrimp and pat dry with paper towels.  Place in a bowl and toss with salt and pepper.  Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat and add canola oil.  Add green chiles and mustard seeds.  As soon as mustard seeds start to pop add shrimp.  Toss in oil and cook for 2 minutes, then add garlic, curry leaves, and tomatoes.  Cook until shrimp is done, about 3 more minutes.  Shrimp will turn opaque and pink.  Do not overcook.  Remove from heat and pour contents on a platter and serve.

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