Curry leaves add that indefinable flavour to South Indian dishes, without which they are incomplete. Curry leaves don’t taste like curry – they assumed that name because of their ubiquitous use in the curries of South India.
A curry leaf is compound and consists of up to 20 small leaves arranged in pairs along a middle rib. For cooking purposes, the leaves are torn from the rib to facilitate cooking and eating. In South Indian recipes ten curry leaves more often than not refers to ten of the small leaves, or about one half to one full leaf, rather than ten large ribbed leaves.
The leaves can be used fresh or dried (but fresh are infinitely better) and are added to oil either at the beginning of making a dish or towards the end. The oil carries the flavour of the leaves better than water based liquids.
Dried curry leaves may be ground into a powder and added to dishes in small quantities. At the end of a season, in fact, as the curry leaf trees are pruned, I take the leaves and dry them. When completely dry they are ground into powder. I like to make a chilli powder by mixing them with home-ground dried chillies. It is not traditional but it is very delicious.