Here's What You Can Substitute For Curry Leaves

Prized for their "pungent lemony flavor," curry leaves are an indispensable herb in South Indian dishes, from rice, vegetables, and soups to curries and chutneys (via NPR). They've also proved their versatility abroad, with mixologists muddling them into modern cocktails at Michelin-starred restaurants (via The Guardian). But they're more than just a flavorful and aromatic addition, boasting a variety of health benefits. According to The Times of India, they contain vitamins A, B, B12, and C; provide iron and calcium; and are believed to help boost metabolism, digestion, memory, and hair growth — making them a staple in not just meals but Ayurvedic medicines. Unfortunately, though they're widely available in India, they may be trickier to find in the United States, popping up in South Asian specialty stores but not necessarily in mainstream markets.

Possible substitutions for curry leaves

NPR helps clear up a few misconceptions about curry leaves: First, they are not related to curry powder; the latter is a blend of ground spices, as opposed to the curry leaf-producing plant, called Murraya koenigii. But if you can't get your hands on curry leaves, Organic Facts notes that a few substitutions may do the trick — try bay leaves (which, though they sport a similar appearance, unlike curry leaves, are not eaten), basil, lime zest, or lemon balm. SPICEography reports that lime zest generally works best (perhaps combined with basil to evoke both herbal and citrus notes), at a ratio of one lime's zest per eight curry leaves.

Helpful hints on substitutions for curry leaves

As Organic Facts explains, each substitution offers its own benefits: Fresh basil can provide "floral zest or bite" at a one-to-one ratio of replacement; bay leaves add certain "sweet and savory notes" in cooked meals, like soups and curries; and lemon balm emulates the aromatics of curry leaves, though with a slightly different taste. Finally, keep in mind that each replacement requires different quantities. SPICEography notes that a single bay leaf can replace a half-cup of curry leaves, but use one-third of the amount called for when replacing with lemon balm, or use six kaffir lime leaves (another possibility, best for stir-fries and soups) for every 10 curry leaves.