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Curry leaves are an essential spice in Southeast Asian and Indian cuisine. Their slender, vibrant green leaves have a unique flavor that combines citrus, lemongrass, and even hints of anise. Once cooked, the taste won’t dominate a dish, instead, they help build a rich, robust flavor, in a similar way that bay leaves do. Dals, soups, curries, and rice dishes will all benefit from the addition of curry leaves.

If you don’t have any in the kitchen then you’re going to need a suitable alternative. We’ve pulled together the best curry leaf substitutes so that you can complete any dish without the original ingredient.

What can I use in place of curry leaves?

To replace curry leaves your best options are lime zest, bay leaf, or lime leaves. Although they won’t perfectly mimic the original ingredient, each option carries a similar flavor profile and won’t be out of place in any dish you create.

1. Lime Zest

Lime zest is a good option for replacing curry leaves in cooking, adding a delicious citrus aroma and pungent flavor. It is important that you only get the outer layer of skin, or rind. This contains the oils which are flavorsome and aromatic.

Most dishes call for 8-10 curry leaves and we recommend using the zest of one lime to replace this quantity of leaves. To round out the dish’s flavor profile you may want to add a sprinkle of basil leaves to dial up the herbaceous notes.

Tip: Although curry leaves are often fried in oil with other spices at the start of cooking, you’re better to add lime zest towards the end of cooking for best results.

2. Bay Leaf

Bay leaves are a popular addition to Mediterranean recipes and are used in a similar way to the curry leaf. They are readily available at any supermarket in the spice aisle. Bay leaves also have a subtle citrus flavor, but they’re a little different thanks to the peppery, sweet, and bitter notes.

Use bay leaves to help flavor curries, boiled lentils, sauces, stews, stir-fries, and Indian salads. Bay leaves are much more pungent than curry leaves, so use less in your cooking. We suggest adding a single bay leaf to replace 10 curry leaves.

3. Lime Leaves

Lime leaves, or makrut, have a strong citrusy flavor that is excellent for adding to stir-fries, soups, and stews. To release the flavor from these leaves it is best to crush them with a mortar and pestle or slice them very finely with a knife. When added whole, they should be removed at the end of cooking as they’re not pleasant to eat. Lime leaves have a powerful flavor so use half the amount as you would use curry leaves.

4. Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is popular for use in herbal teas but it can also be used in savory dishes for adding a lemony, minty flavor. It also has an aroma that is comparable to the curry leaf which makes it a useful substitute in cooking.

This alternative has a strong lemon taste which can easily overwhelm a dish, making it taste out of balance. Replace 10 curry leaves with five lemon balm leaves and allow the flavors to infuse before taste testing. If needed, you can always add more, but if you add too much in the beginning you won’t be able to save the dish.

5. Salam leaf

Salam leaves, or Daun Salam, are similar in appearance to bay leaves and are commonly used in Indonesian cooking. They make an excellent curry leaf substitute, imparting a woodsy, spicy flavor to food. The biggest challenge with this ingredient is finding it in stores. You may have success finding it in Asian grocers, if not, buy the dried leaves online.

6. Cilantro

Cilantro is a flavor-packed herb that provides a grassy, lemony aroma to dishes. It can easily overpower the rest of the ingredients so only use one tablespoon of chopped cilantro when replacing 10 curry leaves.

7. Basil Leaves

Skip the sweet basil and search for lemon or lime basil to get the lemony scent that comes from curry leaves. This herb brings a delicious floral taste and is especially useful in Asian cuisine. Use one tablespoon of chopped basil when replacing 10 curry leaves.

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Fast facts about curry leaves

  • Curry powder is not a suitable substitute for curry leaves.
  • They work best when cooked – steaming, boiling, or sautéing are all good applications.
  • Unlike bay leaves, they can be left in the food after cooking.
  • In Indian restaurants, it is common to find the leaves floating on gravies and curries or sprinkled over vegetables.
  • The leaves are often fried in oil with other fragrant spices, making a delicious aromatic base for recipes.
  • Curry leaves pair well with ingredients like coconut milk, ginger, chili, lentils, seafood, pork, or yogurt.
  • The fresh leaves can be stored in an airtight container refrigerated for up to two weeks. Dried curry leaves will last up to a year if they are stored in a vacuum-sealed bag.
  • The leaves are known to have various health benefits and are high in antioxidants, iron, and folic acid.

Summing up

Curry leaves are widely used by people in India and Southeast Asia. Finding them in stores outside of these countries isn’t always easy. If you need a good replacement then use lime zest, bay leaf, or lime leaves as your best choices. Although each alternative offers a unique taste, they won’t spoil the flavor of the dish you’re trying to make.

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