Down to Earth: The Real Curry Plant

Learn how to discern the real curry plant (Murraya koenigii) from commonly misidentified curry plants (Helichrysum italicum).

| June/July 2003

  • Edible curry leaf (right), and non-edible “curry” plant (left).

"Is this the real curry plant where curry seasoning comes from?” the lady asked, holding a little pot of herbs tenderly in her hand.

“Yes, that’s where Indian curries get their flavor,” the sales clerk said with a smile.

Next to me at a flower and garden show was a plant nursery booth, selling many varieties of herbs. I wasn’t surprised at the clerk’s answer, but I was sorry that she was misleading her customer.

The truth is, the plant called “curry” isn’t actually an edible plant at all. Helichrysum italicum, sometimes listed as H. angustifolium, is the herb commonly sold as a curry plant by well-meaning nurseries and garden centers. It has a warm, curry-like fragrance, but is bitter to the taste. More reputable plant sellers will tell you the plant is not edible and will encourage you to grow the plant for use in potpourris and wreaths, but not for food. For more information about this plant, check The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave, 2000) by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio.



The seasoning we think of as curry is called masala in India. That seasoning makes curries, but curries differ by their ingredients just as the meaning of the word “salad” differs based on its ingredients in our culture. In India, the word kari means sauce or stew. All of these stews have the masala seasoning in common, so in past centuries people outside of India simply lumped everything together calling it curry, a variation of the word kari, for sauce.

Actual curry seasoning is a blend of ground cumin, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, red pepper, fenugreek, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, mustard, fennel and mace. In that mix, several of the ingredients, including mustard, cumin, coriander, fennel and cinnamon, are roasted separately before being ground and added to the other ingredients. Curry is a complex seasoning that varies from region to region (nothing like the generic combination found in the grocery store), even from family to family throughout Southeast Asia. Curry seasonings are often vastly different depending on the season. During summer months, the seasoning is mixed with spices that cool the body and in winter, a different blend helps keep the body warm.

sweedld
7/5/2020 2:46:44 PM

How you relate to a herb does depend on personal taste and the food culture you were raised in. That said, this plant has been and continues to be used in various Island Med traditional foodways as a culinary herb. There are at least 6 species of Helichrysum and Helichrysum italicum is definitely an important herb for seasoning lamb and goat sausage, stews and some fish dishes, especially on the island of Sardinia but also Malta and other smaller Med. islands. Typically the new green tops of fresh growth are pinched off and added to cooking stews and meat preparations, many time removed before serving the finished dish. The flavor will vary widely depending on what variety and soil type the plant was growing in. This plant is also used as a very important essential oil found in several very expensive ladies perfumes and Men's colognes. The essential oil has a wholesale price of 2K dollars per kilogram or more than 2 dollars per gram. The good stuff rarely makes its way to American essential oil retailers as the perfumers buy up all they can get to meet their own market demands so most people have never been exposed to the pure unadulterated Helichrysum essential oil. Another interesting thing about the essential oil versus the fresh or dried plant is that the essential oil contains fragrance notes that are not found in the fresh or dried plant material. Some plant compounds (flavonoids) break down into new essential oil components during the prolonged steam distillation process. And yes there are curry notes in the freshly picked leaves so the plant is named appropriately.


sweedld
7/5/2020 2:46:10 PM

How you relate to a herb does depend on personal taste and the food culture you were raised in. That said, this plant has been and continues to be used in various Island Med traditional foodways as a culinary herb. There are at least 6 species of Helichrysum and Helichrysum italicum is definitely an important herb for seasoning lamb and goat sausage, stews and some fish dishes, especially on the island of Sardinia but also Malta and other smaller Med. islands. Typically the new green tops of fresh growth are pinched off and added to cooking stews and meat preparations, many time removed before serving the finished dish. The flavor will vary widely depending on what variety and soil type the plant was growing in. This plant is also used as a very important essential oil found in several very expensive ladies perfumes and Men's colognes. The essential oil has a wholesale price of 2K dollars per kilogram or more than 2 dollars per gram. The good stuff rarely makes its way to American essential oil retailers as the perfumers buy up all they can get to meet their own market demands so most people have never been exposed to the pure unadulterated Helichrysum essential oil. Another interesting thing about the essential oil versus the fresh or dried plant is that the essential oil contains fragrance notes that are not found in the fresh or dried plant material. Some plant compounds (flavonoids) break down into new essential oil components during the prolonged steam distillation process. And yes there are curry notes in the freshly picked leaves so the plant is named appropriately.


Jami
9/5/2018 6:51:06 PM

Thanks to the author for this, I was actually look for this plant at a nursery and DID clarify to the clerk that I wanted the one that looks like lavender, smells like curry, but is good for skin. Mars2001 thanks for clarifying the medicinal, this is such a powerful plant. I'm currently searching for how to grow it potted. I am hoping it will grow in a pot like lavender with sand and rocks mixed in, but can't find good information on it. Fingers crossed it works! The French call it "immortelle" for it's powerful healing applications and anti-aging potential on skin.




Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Get the latest on Natural Health and Sustainable Living with Mother Earth News!

Mother Earth News

Your friends at Mother Earth Living are committed to natural health and sustainable living. Unfortunately, the financial impact of COVID-19 has challenged us to find a more economical way to achieve this mission. We welcome you to our sister publication Mother Earth News. What you sought in the pages of Mother Earth Living can be found in Mother Earth News. For over 50 years, “The Original Guide to Living Wisely” has focused on organic gardening, herbal medicine, real food recipes, and sustainability. We look forward to going on this new journey with you and providing solutions for better health and self-sufficiency.

The impact of this crisis has no doubt affected every aspect of our daily lives. We will strive to be a useful and inspiring resource during this critical time and for years to come.

Best wishes,
Your friends at Mother Earth Living and Mother Earth News

Save Money & a Few Trees!

By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of Mother Earth News for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Classifieds