Photographs by John Burgess Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Kaffir lime leaves (also spelled Kieffer) are used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking where they lend the most wonderful and pungent citrus perfume and flavor to all manner of dishes including soups, curries and sauces. Known in Thailand as Magroot or Makrut, the Kaffir lime tree also bears a small, warty skinned fruit which is not as culinarily important as the leaves because there aren’t as many of them available as the leaves and they yield very little juice. The grated rind can also be used but it tends to be a little bitter.
While the name “kaffir lime” has widespread acceptance, it’s important to note that the term is sometimes considered offensive in certain parts of the world. The word “kaffir” derives from the equally offensive Arabic word “kapiri.” In Sri Lanka, the word had been used for hundreds of years as a racial slur and is still considered offensive around South Africa. Despite its connotations, kaffir lime is the common term used worldwide, even in South Africa. However, many chefs and foodies are shifting to more politically correct alternative names such as the Thai or makrut lime.
In Southeast Asia the leaves are generally used in the same way that bay leaves are used in Mediterranean cooking; that is whole ones are added for flavor and are generally not eaten but discarded from the dish after they’ve perfumed it. They are tough in texture like a bay leaf. Sometimes though the leaves are eaten after finely chopping or slicing. Recipes will call for slivering them very, very finely with a knife or scissors. These fine slivers are added to dishes, usually at the last minute to get maximum fragrance and flavor impact.
If you can find the fruit, treat it like regular limes and grate the skin and squeeze the juice to extract its flavor. Kaffir lime can be grown wherever citrus is grown especially in moist, subtropical areas like California, Texas and Florida. As a result, it’s available in Asian markets and occasionally in gourmet/natural foods markets. You’ll sometimes find the leaves available dried but don’t buy them – – they are mere shadows of their fresh cousins. You can also find them frozen and they can be pretty good if they haven’t been in the freezer case too long.
Kaffir lime trees require lots of light (up to 12 hours a day) and don’t tolerate cold very well. They are sub-tropical plants. I have a couple of trees where I live in Northern California that I grow in big pots with wheels. This enables me to move them around and protect them from the frosts that we get in Sonoma County. If you live in a citrus growing area, you can order trees from your local nursery. Up until the last few years they were embargoed and nearly impossible to get because of concerns about disease and pests.
Over the years I’ve found all kinds of interesting uses for the leaves including adding to olive oil to perfume it, adding a crushed leaf when you brew hot tea and – – if my Grandmother were still with us – – she’d slip a leaf or two into her sock or underwear drawer to subtly scent those garments!
SPICY TOMATO AND LIME LEAF BROTH
KAFFIR AND LEMON GRASS SOUP (TOM YUM)
RICE PORRIDGE OR CONGEE
KAFFIR LIME AND COCONUT SOUP WITH MUSHROOMS
SHRIMP WITH GREEN CURRY SAUCE
GREEN CURRY CHICKEN
This article was published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, April 2023