Curry Leaves & Bay Leaves Important Differences & Uses
It is important to gain an understanding of the herbs and spices we have in our kitchens. Not just for when we run low, but also to know what they bring to a dish.
Both curry and bay leaves will bring an added depth of flavor to a dish with curry leaves bringing a light citrus and nutty flavor and bay bringing pine with mint and a hint of freshness. Adding them to any dish will enhance the flavor of other ingredients.
They have a lot to offer and leaving either curry or bay leaves out of a dish would be a mistake, but we can substitute them.
Curry Leaves Vs Bay Leaves
- Curry leaves taste like citrus with a hint of anise and licorice with the mature notes of lemongrass. Once cooked there is a nutty flavor and aroma of earthiness. Warming to any dish, rather than dominant and surprisingly curry leaves do not taste of curry. Bay leaves have a pine note with heavy mint and menthol astringent flavor. There is a pepperiness that comes through but it is the bitter taste that dominates once cooked.
- Both curry leaves and bay leaves are edible, but you wouldn’t want to eat bay at all! Added to stews or dahl the liquid does not soften the leaves during cooking, so even fresh leaves are unpleasant to come across in a dish. Best to remove them before serving or just push them to one side as sometimes you can’t remember how many you have added to a dish!
- Curry Leaf tree is native to India and is from the citrus family (Rutaceae)- Murraya koenigii. Bay Tree Laurus nobilis is native to the Mediterranean and it’s popularity spread across the world with the Romans.
- A bay leaf and a curry leaf next to one another may look similar with the bay being slightly more shiny. Their are differences in how they grow from their tree though with curry leaves growing from one thicker straight branch and then the leaves being offset coming from that stem. Branches of the laurel tree have many stems coming off them with leaves covering all points.
- Due to their similarity in flavor and appearance you can easily use bay leaves in place of curry leaves and vice versa. Neither will dominate a dish and both can be useful for adding a depth of flavor to cooking. In fact if you don’t label your dried herbs and spices correctly this can happen by accident!
What Is An Alternative To Curry Leaves
- Rather than adding to the start of a cooking process try adding lemon or lime zest just before serving. If you cook it in the sauce it will become a little too bitter over time, so ten minutes before serving just grate over the top and stir through. The ratio is zest of one lime to 8 curry leaves but it is also recommended to combine with basil leaves to get the more minty and earthy notes as well. If you are using basil leaves they will wilt when put into hot food and look a bit off putting but also the texture isn’t overly great. So use as a garnish when serving, mixed in with coriander / cilantro leaves or as a complete substitute.
- We are often asked if bay leaves can be used instead of curry leaves due to the difficulty in getting hold of fresh curry leaves. Really they can be as bay leaves are not a bullying herb and will not overtake other flavors in a dish, in much the same way as curry leaves. You will find they share many of those earthy and subtle citrus notes when cooked. Just watch out for that bitterness that comes with bay leaves and even add a squeeze of lemon juice to take the edge off, just before serving.
- We grow Kaffir Lime Trees, so using their leaves fresh is a good option for us, although they are as hard if not harder to come by in a supermarket than curry leaves. Use in the same way as curry leaves and pop them into a dish and allow it to simmer, then remove or put to one side. The kaffir (Makrut) leaf is citrusy with an earthiness but non of the mint notes, perhaps a few mint leaves chopped up with garnish would help with that.
- Dried Curry Leaves are no substitute for the vibrancy of fresh curry leaves, but the background flavor is very much a similar one. One word of caution is around quantity used. There is a lack of strength in the dried version so a ratio of 3 dried curry leaves to 2 fresh leaves will help.
- Lemon Verbena works at a pinch as an alternative to curry leaves. The only problem is the level of citrus as lemon verbena is one of the strongest citrus notes of any herb. Also this herb will need to be removed before eating as it is sharp and you would not enjoy crunching on it. Easier to grow in the UK and colder USDA hardiness zones that are a little cooler, but still tough to find in the market.
- As a garnish and only added towards the end, when serving a dish lemon balm works well to replace curry leaves as it has the citrus and the mint notes. Lemon balm is even easier to grow yourself and will thrive in many colder climates as well as warmer ones.
What To Use Instead Of Bay Leaves
We are looking solely at the Mediterranean bay here and not Indian Bay Leaves – Tej Patta which translates to ‘pungent leaf’. Malabar leaf is another name you may have heard them go by. Slightly different leaf, with a more rounded appearance and with a much stronger flavor and aroma.
- If you have dried oregano then this makes a great alternative to bay leaves and you can add it chopped up once you add liquids to a dish or when you are frying off onions etc. 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano = 1 fresh bay leaf. You can make up a bouquet garni with fresh oregano and use it in just the same way as a bay leaf, by removing before serving. One fresh sprig of oregano = one fresh bay leaf.
- Thyme is another great option as a substitute for bay. A different family but a Mediterranean herb that is often found in similar dishes. It has the pungent earthiness and astringent minty notes that work well alongside a peppery background flavor. Substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme for 1 bay leaf.
- Dried basil leaves work well to replace bay leaves. Use a like for like ratio, 1 teaspoon of dried basil = 1 bay leaf.
- Not everyone will have the space for a bay tree in their own garden and therefore access to fresh leaves will not be year round. Dried bay leaves do make an acceptable swap for fresh, however bear in mind that the flavor and aroma of this already subtle herb will be diminished. Work on a ratio of one fresh = two dried. Do remember to remove the leaves still before serving! Memories of my mum shouting that she may have left a couple in will haunt me!
- Curry leaves do make a great alternative to bay leaves with their subtle citrus and nutty flavor. Although not always available in your spice rack they make a great alternative and I would say they bring out the flavors of the surrounding herbs very well. Not a bully of a herb at all.
Why Curry Leaves Are Banned In America & The UK
At first glance a blanket ban on importing fresh curry leaves can seem a overly cautious.
The ban was introduced to stop the possibility of fresh curry leaves bringing a citrus specific disease into the country. Citrus greening disease was first noted in China in the 1900’s and has spread with the insects that are infected. The ban on imports is as a measure to try to control this threatening disease.
The UK has left the EU meaning changes to the plant passport scheme. It’s now harder to get curry leaves into the country as previously we could import from with the EU. An article in Asian Voice from 2015 highlights that this issue was not truly solved even then as no importers had been identified.
This means that growing your own curry leaf plant is a great idea! We have a full guide available below as it will take a little bit of know how and skill. A great investment for anyone looking to do a lot of cooking.
What Next & Further Reading
- How Often Do I Need To Water My Bay Tree?
- Curry Leaf Plant – A Complete Guide
- Grow Your Own Curry Spices In The UK
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