Saving the Curry Tree


Photo by Tejal Rao

To try cucumber raita, click here for the recipe.

The curry tree's shiny leaves have a savory, toasted eucalyptus perfume. They've got nothing to do with pre-mixed curry powder, that useless neon stuff at the supermarket (though the Indian name for the plant, kadipatta, pronounced curry-pratta, explains the English name, and our association).

Cooks who use curry leaves say things like, "They're key to authentic Indian food." And it's true that even the simplest dishes are often flavored with a few leaves, dropped into hot oil. But I got on just fine without curry leaves for the last few years, making my mother and grandmother's recipes and leaving them out.

When my parents moved to Thailand last year, my mother left me her plant. In the past, she's left it with friends and carefully smuggled a cutting to replant at our new home. When we moved to France, a branch wrapped in moist paper towels sat up in the front seat, sharing my mother's seat belt, and her view of the white cliffs of Dover.

I imagined this tree was related to the one my great-great-grandmother carried on the steamship that brought her to East Africa, and related to the trees my family carried to Europe, when they were exiled from Uganda in the 1970s.

But not this time. Presumably, she could easily get her hands on curry leaves in Bangkok, and those plants would be tastier from all the sunshine. Curry trees are native to South Asia, and, as Indians immigrated, they carried them along, replanting them in foreign gardens and window boxes.

I imagined this tree was related to the one my great-great-grandmother carried on the steamship that brought her to East Africa, and related to the trees my family carried to Europe, when they were exiled from Uganda in the 1970s. I started frying the leaves when I was supposed to, and sometimes when I wasn't.

But within a couple of months of being under my care, the tree looked sad. The stems felt like they'd been deep-fried. The leaves fell off. Was it the change in weather? An Indian cook assured me that the curry tree grows quite happily on windowsills all over Rochester, New York, even in the winter.

"The curry tree is near impossible to kill," said another site. I read, with envy, about a couple in Maine whose trees had doubled in less than six months. "We have so many curry leaves, we simply don't know what to do," they complained. Show offs, I thought.

Meanwhile, my tree's main trunks, a few inches high and thick as twigs, were completely bare. A couple of new shoots sprung up, but they looked alarmingly delicate and sort of yellowish.

I consulted a forum where curry tree owners discussed problems like aphids--destructive little buggers--seasonal shedding, leaves turning black, and killer molds. Here, one man shared the story of receiving a plant as a gift and killing it accidentally. "Please tell me, what did I do wrong?" he asked.

I asked my mother the same question. She examined the plant in the Skype video feed. "Oh sometimes the kadipatta just gets like that. I mix some full fat yogurt with a little water and pour it all over the soil. Perks right up!"

"What if it's too late?" I asked.

"It's never too late for yogurt!" She assured me.

Indian grocery stores sell curry leaves on the stem, in the freezer section. But it's in the spirit of the traveling plant to grow your own and share a branch, to play a part in distributing its quiet, culinary magic. And should the yogurt fail, I'll be in the market for a new cutting myself.

Recipe: Cucumber Raita

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Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at

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