More than a flavoring for soups and sauces, the bay leaf is an aromatic leaf that is used in cooking all over the world. It can be used whole or ground and can come from several plants, including bay laurel, California bay leaf, Indian bay leaf or Indonesian laurel. The true bay leaf is scientifically known as Laurus nobilis. Bay leaves have a sharp, bitter taste, and, as with many spices and flavorings, the fragrance of the bay leaf is more noticeable than its taste. When dried, the fragrance is herbal and somewhat similar to oregano and thyme.
In Indian and Pakistani cuisines, bay leaves are most often used in rice dishes and as an ingredient in the spice mixture garam masala. In the Philippines, dried bay leaves are used in adobo, and in the Caribbean Islands they are used to make jerk chicken. In European, Italian and American cuisines, bay leaves are used in soups, stews, meat and seafood dishes, and sauces. The leaves are most commonly used whole and removed before serving, or they are ground and included in the French seasoning mixture known as bouquet garni.
Bay leaves have been cultivated since ancient times. Wreathes of bay leaves crowned victorious athletes in ancient Greece and during the Middle Ages they were used medicinally. Bay leaves are known to detoxify the body and protect it from bacterial infections, slow the aging process, speed up the healing of wounds, manage diabetes, improve heart health and reduce inflammation. Bay leaves are also a popular element in aromatherapy.