The Sweetest, Spiciest Medicine

August 4th, 2010 | Meera

They’ve been living with us for over a year now, two little South Asian transplants. Recently I put them both outside after a long winter punctuated by the spit and wheeze of the radiator, and they seemed to notice right away the sun on their long arms, reaching up towards it like hungry birds. They have since grown lush and so very, very green that it seems almost too much to look at them sometimes. Their greenness demands experimental uses of adverbs: They are severely green, my trees—tempestuously green—vehemently green. They pound greenness into an essential oil.

If you rub their leaves between your fingers, as it is impossible to resist doing, the aroma they give off is warm, nutty, spicy—a hint of tangerine, a sip of onion, the breath of an entire simmering curry in one tiny tear-shaped package. They could not be more beautiful, especially after a summer storm that soaks their soil dark and forms tiny reflecting pools on every fragrant leaf.

The curry leaf tree‘s scientific name, Murraya koenigii, honors not its own charming qualities but the botanists Johann Andreas Murray (of Sweden) and Johann Gerhard König (of Germany), both of whom lived and died in the stink of the 18th century and neither of whom, I would wager (drunk as I am on dinner), ever sniffed anything quite so rich and piquant and utterly heady as the coconut dal I made tonight using eight little leaves I harvested from our balcony garden.

But it needn’t content itself with this cold label, for the curry leaf tree had the great good fortune to be born in a land that seethes with musical tongues. It bears at least two dozen other names (or maybe a thousand), each as alluring as the next. You can call it karepaku or karivepaaku in Andhra Pradesh; narasingha or bishahari in Assam; barsanga or kartaphulli in Bengal; gorenimb or kadhilimbdo in Gujrat; mitha neem, gandhla, gandhela, or gandhelu in Himachal Pradesh; karibeva in Karnataka; kariveppilei in Kerela; gandhela, gandla, or gani in Kumaon; bassan, basango, or bhursanga in Orissa; karivempu or karuveppilei in Tamilnadu. If you speak Hindi, you can name it kathnim, mitha neem, kurry patta gandhela or, barsanga; in Sanskrit, take your pick from surabhinimba, kalasaka, and mahanimb.

Just roll those around your tongue for a minute while you look at this tempestuous green.

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I am not a fan of conceiving of food as medicine, but (dal warming my belly, smell of curry on my fingers), I wondered this evening if there might be not only beauty, not only pleasure, but also virtue in my trees. I confess, I wanted to think so. They are such winning little things, so brave and out of place on my Midwestern porch. Let them be shored up for another winter, I thought, with more good qualities. Let them be salubrious, and shore me up for winter.

Here, then.

In 1995, a group of Indian biochemists found that rats, fed with a supplement of curry leaves, experienced far less of a blood cholesterol-spike from the vast quantities of coconut oil the researchers were also feeding them. A few years later, another Indian team found that the effects of a known carcinogen on rats were significantly mitigated when the rats were also fed curry leaves. There is some evidence that curry leaves reduce blood sugar levels in mildly diabetic rats. They appear to function as antioxidants. They have an antimicrobial effect. They even seem to improve memory.

Virtue, thy name is karivepaaku. And since I have you, how could I be other than fiercely—brilliantly—dauntlessly healthy?

2 Responses to “The Sweetest, Spiciest Medicine”

  1. Still another beautiful post. “They pound greenness into an essential oil.” I love that.

    Are you distinguishing between curry (the spice) and curry leaves? Do you know of any studies on the incidence of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses among people who consume curry leaves on a regular basis?

  2. Meera says:

    There’s no such thing as curry the spice—curry is sort of a catch-all word that can refer to any of a myriad of dishes eaten throughout South Asia, and each is made with a different combination of spices. When you buy “curry powder,” you’re buying a spice-mix whose ingredients can vary enormously (and don’t include curry leaves). Also, curry leaves don’t go in every curry, by any means.

    I didn’t find too many human diet-health studies on curry leaves in my quick after-dinner search, but I’m sure there are a few out there. I really don’t mean to make them sound like a “super-food” (I hate that term.); I just wanted to justify my adoration of our lovely trees!

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