A collection of kaffir lime leaf recipes (also known as makrut lime leaf or limau purut in Singapore) as well as tips on how to choose, store, grow and cook with this essential South East Asian herb.
What is it?
Kaffir lime leaf (scientific name: Citrus hystrix but also known as jelek purut, kabuyaw, kulubot, Kolumichai, mak khi hut, trúc, chanh sác and combava) is a herb that is commonly used in many parts of South East Asia- it is a pretty vital component of Thai cooking, for one, and is also used in Peranakan/ Nyonya cuisine. It has hourglass shaped leaves which are an attractive glossy dark green full of aromatic oils.
The plant is native to South East Asia and southern China- in Chinese it is 箭叶橙 (jian ye cheng)- although I am not familiar with any Chinese recipes that use it. If you are, please let me know in the comments! Besides culinary purposes, some countries also believe kaffir lime has health benefits and use it in medicine (or to kill head lice!) The essential oil in the leaves are incorporated into some perfumes.
Which part is edible?
This herb is grown primarily for its leaves, but its fruit can be used in cooking too! (Be warned, they are very, very sour- I've actually never seen a Singaporean recipe that calls for the use of the kaffir lime themselves although I believe some Thai recipes do utilise them sparingly to provide acidity. The kaffir lime zest is also used in some Thai green curry recipes.)
If you want to cook with the fruit, it's worth growing the plant at home, as the fruits are not readily available in the supermarkets. They don't have much juice, but their rind/ zest is a nice addition to curries and such. The skin is quite thick, so you can actually use a knife to slice it off, if you don't have a zester. Avoid the white pith as, like with most citrus fruits, it's horribly bitter. (The kaffir lime leaf recipes here all use only the leaf and not the fruit.)
Kaffir lime leaves are used in some of our favourite Thai dishes such as Tom Yum Soup , Tod Mun (fish cake), green curry paste and Tom Kha Gai as well as in Indonesian and Cambodian food. (I have not included recipes to these dishes, however, as they're such classics that you probably already have a good recipe on hand!)
Kaffir vs makrut
Growing up in Singapore, we've always called this herb Kaffir Lime or Limau Purut. (Some people refer to it as Thai lime, as it is so commonly found in Thai cuisine.) It wasn't till this year that I realised the word "kaffir" is offensive in some countries, and so they use the name makrut lime leaves instead. Apologies to anyone who is offended by the word "kaffir" but if I leave it out of this post, very few people in South East Asia will know which plant I am referring to!
What does it taste like?
Kaffir lime leaf adds a bright, uplifting note to food, like other citrus flavors, but it is more complex than the typical lime or lemon and has a slightly floral fragrance. Once you've tasted it, it'll be very obvious when you have it again. Be careful not to use too much of this herb as it can overwhelm the other flavours in food.
Where to buy
You can buy this herb fresh (always get the fresh leaves if you can), frozen, dried, freeze-dried and powdered. In Asia, the fresh leaves are widely available but in Western countries, you are most likely to find the dried version in mainstream grocery stores. If you don't see them, order online or head to the closest Asian markets or grocery store.
How to grow
The plant can grow to a few metres tall but adapts well to the potted life, if the pot is of adequate size. (Mine has a diameter of about 30 cm.) In addition, Kaffir Lime requires:
- lots of sunlight
- moist but well-draining soil
If you don't live in the tropics, keep the plant indoors when it's cold out, near a sunny window and mist regularly as the plant likes humidity (but not wet feet as the roots will rot!) Without a lot of sun, the plant won't die, but it will remain in a state of stasis where it doesn't grow new leaves- mine did for ages till I invested in a grow light (which could only coax 3 new leaves out of it. In contrast, whenever we get a period of very sunny weather in Singapore, my plant condescends to sprout a spring with at least 5 new leaves!)
It responds well to pruning so pluck the leaves every few weeks to encourage growth. You can also propogate a new Kaffir Lime leaf plant by poking a stem cutting in soil- the stem should be at least 4 inches long, with all the leaves removed except for the top ones. (So they say- I've not achieved any success with this yet, but will update the post appropriately as I attempt more kaffir lime cuttings.)
How to preserve
Kaffir Lime leaves can be used fresh, frozen or dried. (Fresh is always best- when I lived in London, I had no choice but to buy the dried version and it wasn't quite the same.)
It's best to use the young leaves as they are more tender, so if you have a glut of leaves, pluck them and plonk them in your freezer for future use. Alternatively, you can wash them, bruise them and immerse them in water to form a drink, much like lemongrass tea and lemon-infused water.
If stored in the fridge, toss them when they start developing dark spots. They're usually good for about 2 weeks in the fridge, if you don't let the moisture accumulate.
How to cook
You can use kaffir leaves like bay leaves, to infuse flavour into your stews and curries- similarly, remove the leaves before serving as they're tough, unless you're using them as a garnish. They go very well with other common asian ingredients such as shrimp paste, red chilli, fresh coriander etc.
Alternatively, the leaves can be shredded thinly and then added to your food: roll the leaf up and use a sharp knife to cut very thinly. (This is how they are used in Thai fish cakes. You may also want to remove the central stem of the leaves which is tougher.) In this case, you no longer need to remove the leaves before eating and they make a very pretty garnish or can be added to salads. (Good way to practice your knife skills!)
As you can probably tell from the cuisines that use Kaffir Lime leaf, it goes very well with other herbs and aromatics such as:
Kaffir lime leaf shares flavour notes with lemongrass and aromatic citrus fruits, so a combination of lemon grass and lime/lemon juice and zest can be used as a substitute. However, if you're using the substitutes in classic dishes such as Tom Yum Soup, it'll taste a little flat to people who're familiar with the foods, as the flavour isn't quite as complex.
- Bruise the kaffir lime leaves before adding to food to release its natural oils
- If you're thinking of making a dessert, experiment with tropical flavours such as coconut and papaya.
- Choose fresh kaffir lime leaves when you can get them- frozen are almost as good. If not, go for the powdered or dried version, which is slightly duller in taste.
- Add a few washed leaves to your water along with some lemon juice and ice- it makes a very refreshing drink in summer!
Yes, however they are very tough. If you want to eat them, use the youngest, most tender leaves you can find and slice them very, very thinly. They make a great garnish in this way. The fruit on the other hand has a lot of seeds and is extremely sour so it's not recommended to eat it!
Other Asian herb recipes
- what you can make with pandan
- curry leaves food ideas that go beyond South Asian food
- tamarind, also known as assam jawa, recipes
- pumpkin recipes
- aloe vera
- papaya milk
Pork, beef & lamb
Rice & Noodles
I love noodles much more than rice- for more Asian noodle recipes, click here.
Desserts and drinks
A very interesting recipe is this kaffir lime leaf simple syrup. The recipe says it's for cocktails but I'm sure it would work well in desserts too. Stay tuned to see what I end up making with it!
What is your favourite kaffir lime leaf recipe? Tag me on social media if you make any from this list!
Before you go, you may like 1 of these Asian recipes: