Have you ever tasted the traditional Indian dishes chicken and veal curry? Do you like spicy food and use curry powder when cooking?
Scientists are now saying that curry, except for its ability to “light fire” in our palate, can also be used to detect explosive material such as TNT. More specifically curcumin, which is a basic component of curry, belongs to a category of chemical substances which reemit light of a different color when illuminated. The researchers’ idea is based on the fact that if different molecules, for example those of the explosive, attach to the fluorescent molecules of curcumin the intensity of reemitted light changes. The efforts of experts from the University of Massachussetts and a manufacturing company are now focusing on developing a high sensitivity, inexpensive, portable and user friendly explosive detection device, which is believed to give solution to the problem of eliminating the 50-70 million land mines located worldwide *.
After reading the above you might be thinking that it is amazing where a spice can be used. But are you certain that curry is indeed an Asian spice, just like cinnamon or pepper?
The word “curry” in the language of Tamil means soup or sauce and is usually used to describe dishes cooked in hot sauce. British colonialists have mistakenly attributed this word to the mixture of spices Indians were using in order to flavor their food *. So the truth is that curry powder we buy in the market is a mixture of various spices. In fact, curry mixtures sold in western world stores tend to have standarized color and flavor, whereas in India many different curry flavors are available and most native cooks even today create their own curry mixtures.
The main costituents of curry are coriander, turmeric, cumin and fenugreek. Additional ingredients according to the desired flavor may be: ginger, garlic, fennel seed, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, green cardamon, black cardamon, mace, nutmeg, red pepper, long pepper and black pepper *.
Those of you who practice aromatherapy may have come across the essential oil curry. This oil has naturally no relation to the aforementioned mixture of spices. It is extracted from the leaves of a small bush called curry tree, whose botanical name is Murraya Koenigii and is growing in most countries of the Indian peninsula. The inhabitants of those countries have been using curry leaves since ancient times for gastronomic and therapeutic applications *. According to the traditional medical system of Ayurveda, curry leaves are rich in iron, they have antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and their extract has positive effect on the good health and strengh of hair *. Curry leaves are also used in India for cleaning teeth, strengthening the gum, avoiding nausea, treating digestive disorders, healing skin irritations and bites*.
Contemporary scientific evidence concerning the therapeutic properties of this plant exists too. During an experiment curry leaves were included in the diet of mice. The result of that controlled diet was a significant improvement of memory, both for young and older mice, as well as a decrease in their total cholesterol levels *. According to two other studies, held by the University of Chicago and the Indian Institute of Medical Science, a significant decrease of cholesterol and blood sugar levels was noticed after treating mice with curry leave extract *,*.
Have you thought after reading the above to use some curry leaves along with basil and bay next time you prepare dinner? India is the main producer of curry leaves and if you do a little research on the Internet you will certainly find suppliers. Keep in mind that fresh curry leaves do not last long but they could be preserved well in the refrigerator for a few days. You will also find dried leaves in the market but their flavor is slightly inferior *. A good idea is to acquire your own small Murraya Koenigii tree!
For therapeutic applications you can always obtain curry leaf essential oil. It incorporates all the beneficial properties of fresh leaves and has clearly longer shelf life. Unfortunately you will not be able to use it for cooking (let me remind you that essential oils should not be taken internally and there are safety rules for their use) but it will benefit you tremendously in physical, emotional and mental level.
If you would like to experiment with Indian cuisine I recommend two books. In “Curry Leaves and Cumin Seeds” the famous in India nutritionist Jeeti Gandhi presents traditional, delicious and spicy dishes of her country free of fat and cholesterol sources. The “Curries without Worries” contains recipes and techniques to prepare easily tasty meals that will look elaborate and will make an impression.