My dad (pictured first in the second row) grew up with thirteen siblings: Daisy Maria, Esther, Jolly, Stephen, Rachel, Clara, Elias, Joey, James, John, David, Samson, and Starling. Nine of them followed him to the states beginning in the sixties. When I was a child, the family got together at least once a year for a christening. Everyone ate and slept in the same house. A boisterous bunch, my uncles kept the booze flowing. They pulled pranks on anyone they could catch off guard and told outlandish tales that grew taller and taller with each drink. My aunts made sure we were all well-fed. Squeezed in the kitchen, they boiled rice, ground spices, and shared stories of family back home.
These days we get together to celebrate weddings and to baptize the next generation. Thankfully, the laughter and jesting and mayhem have continued alongside my aunts’ marvelously home cooked meals: idli (steamed buns) and sambar (vegetable stew), cuppa (cassava) and red fish curry, spicy chicken and stir-fried cabbage. Everything is flavored with kariveppila or fresh curry leaves.
Turmeric adds a glow, cardamom perfumes, but curry leaves are Kerala's most common flavor booster. Tossed in almost all Malayalee dishes, they have the flavor of peppercorns crossed with bell peppers and freshly cut grass. The only ingredient that makes it to the table more often is rice. With a tree growing in nearly every yard, curry leaves are sautéed in oil, floated in beef stew, and mixed into lentil fritters before they are fried.
In Chicago and other major urban centers, fresh curry leaves are often sold in the produce section of Indian grocery stores. Select leaves that smell strong and have smooth edges. Avoid brittle leaves - a sure sign they are sapped of flavor. Curry leaves thrive in warm climates. My Uncle Joey and my Uncle Jimmy who live in Florida faithfully bring huge bunches of them to family reunions. On the last day of every get together, the coveted leaves are divided in a come-one-come-all sort of fashion. I’ve nearly been trampled trying to claim my share. If you fall for them too and bask in a warm climate, why not plant a small tree in the yard.
Curry leaves are best used fresh. To preserve your loot, dry the leaves and fold them in a paper towel. Place them in an air tight bag (or container) and store them in the refrigerator.