Spice support: kaffir lime leaves

Kaffir lime leaves

Due to the positive responses from last week's post on sumac, we have decided to offer a weekly post that explains an herb, spice, or spice blend. If there is a particular spice, herb, or blend that you are interested in learning more about, send an email to Darcie and she will try to include it in the series. This week we are exploring kaffir lime leaves. 

If you have tried any recipes that originate in Southeast Asia, you may have come across kaffir lime leaves in the ingredients list. As you might expect by its name, the kaffir lime is a citrus fruit, but unlike Persian limes, Key limes, or lemons, usually only the zest and leaves are used in cooking, not the fruit and pulp. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee says the kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix), has a rough green peel and "a lime-like aroma with general citrus and pine notes (from limonene, pinene), and is used to flavor various prepared dishes, as are its intensely lemon-scented leaves." 

You'll find kaffir lime leaves in the ingredients list for many Indian, Thai, and Southeast Asian dishes, including curries and soups. The leaves are most frequently used like bay leaves in European recipes, added whole to a dish and removed at the end of cooking. The leaves are rarely eaten; the only exception is when they are shredded extremely finely in dishes like Tod Mun (fish cakes).   

The flavor of kaffir lime leaves is intense; a few leaves go a long way. I simmered about five previously frozen leaves (half of what the recipe suggested) in 500 ml of cream when making a kaffir lime posset and the flavor was almost overpowering. The leaves freeze very well, and you will often find them in the freezer section of Asian markets. Avoid dried leaves; the unique and volatile flavor compounds do not fully survive the drying process. 

According to The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs, kaffir is a derogatory term in South Africa and other locations, where the plant "is called wild lime or Indonesian lime instead. Makrut is the Thai name, and the leaves are sometimes identified that way." You'll find these fruits called wild limes in books like Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. 

Explore the uses for kaffir lime leaves with recipes from the EYB Library, including these Member favorites:

Celebration yellow rice (Nasi kuning) from Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland
Chilli duck salad with green mango and mint from The Blue Ducks by Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson
Very easy Thai chicken and coconut curry from The Hairy Dieters by Dave Myers and Si King and Hairy Bikers
Vietnamese-style pork belly from Cuisine Magazine by Ginny Grant
Hot and sour seafood soup (Tom yum) from Sydney Seafood School by Roberta Muir
Massaman roast chicken from Delicious Magazine (Aus) by Valli Little 

Photo of kaffir lime leaves from Jules on Flickr

6 Comments

  • vickster  on  4/23/2017 at 7:04 AM

    Haas anyone had success growing them? I'm thinking of getting a plant. I grow a lot of veggies and herbs and really like my bay plant, supplying fresh bay leaves when needed.

  • darcie_b  on  4/23/2017 at 8:24 AM

    I think you can, provided you have a warm place over the winter months where it can reside if you don't live in a semi-tropical climate. One of my friends in Pennsylvania successfully grew a dwarf lemon tree in a large pot - I see no reason you couldn't do the same with a kaffir lime tree.

  • PennyG  on  4/23/2017 at 1:55 PM

    A Thai friend gave me a potted kaffir lime plant about three years ago. It was then about 6 inches tall. It is in the same pot and now about 6 feet tall! I live in San Antonio, Texas where the plant resides on my back patio. I move it to the garage for the "couple of days" it freezes here in South Texas. I do not generally have a green thumb so am thrilled and keeping my fingers crossed for its long life. Otherwise, all I have found here in San Antonio are the frozen leaves.

  • sir_ken_g  on  4/23/2017 at 2:05 PM

    I nurtured a lot of spider mites when I tried to grow a tree. I have found leaves from our Oklahoma asian stores to be tasteless. I have however found that this oil is very good (and very strong - 2-3 drops is plenty): http://thaifoodessentials.com/buy/ I always have it in the refrigerator now.

  • lgroom  on  4/23/2017 at 3:19 PM

    Very interesting. I've never tried to do anything with them. I'm glad you are doing a weekly spice post.

  • mjes  on  4/23/2017 at 6:46 PM

    There are recipes that use the juice of the kaffir lime in small quantities: http://sugarandshake.com/dont-fear-kaffir/ or http://www.thefloshow.com/kaffir-lime-biscuits/. If you are into DIY bitters I suspect that it has uses there although I've not checked.

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