Saturday, 4 June 2016

Kaffir Lime

Photo: Will Luo
Kaffir Lime leaves bring an elusive, slightly floral flavour to Thai food. But how do you use the bounty of this thorny brut?

Native to tropical Asia, Kaffir lime is a fragrant member of the citrus family. The tree is small and shrubby with distinctive leaves that have a petiole almost as large and wide as the leaf blade. Both the leaves & pungent, knobbly fruit are key ingredients in the cuisines of South East Asia, particularly Thailand, where they form the sensory backbone of so many curries, soups and spice pastes.
It is best summed up as the elusive, floral and resinous quality lurking beneath the surface of many famous Thai dishes. The two-lobed leaves are added to curries, and the rind of the fruit is used widely in spice pastes. They have very little juice which is bitter & sour, & never used in cooking, but it is said to make a good shampoo which i have yet to try. Both leaves and rind are assertively aromatic with notes of Citron, Damask Rose and Violets.

Photo: Robyn Jay

Fresh Kaffir leaves can only sometimes be found at premium supermarkets or fruit stores. So it is probably best to grow your own little tree for the rare occasion you need some. Fresh, tender young leaves are the preferred choice for salads. To slice the leaves for salads, slice on either side of the stem, which is tough and so best removed. Then tightly roll up and thinly shred. Whole leaves are leathery and largely inedible so remove before serving. The fruit eventually ripen to a spongey, dull yellow but are best used when hard, shiny and green. The riper they are the lower the essential oil content and therefore flavour.
Most garden centres stock the trees these days and given a warm, frost-free & sunny spot they will keep you well supplied with leaves and fruit for many years. They are very thorny trees, so take care where you plant them.
Last time i was in Koh Phangan, Thailand i did a cooking course & learnt how to make Thai Red Curry from scratch. Here's the recipe:

Thai Red Curry

Paste ingredients:
1 thumb Galangal
1 tsp Black Peppercorns
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Shrimp Paste.
3 cloves Garlic
2 Shallots
2 Coriander Roots
2 Lemongrass stalks
1/2 Kaffir Lime, zested.
2 dried Red Chillies, rehydrated.
400ml Coconut Cream
4 Kaffir Lime leaves, shredded.
2 TBS Fish Sauce
1 TBS Palm Sugar
3 sprigs Thai Basil

1. Finely chop all the ingredients. Then pound well in a mortar.
2. Fry the Paste in oil.
3. Add the Coconut Cream & Kaffir Lime leaves. Simmer for 3 mins. Season with Fish Sauce & Palm Sugar. 
4. Add in the Prawns, when they are cooked add in the Thai Basil.
5. Move to a serving bowl & garnish with Kaffir Lime leaves & Thai Basil leaves. Serve with Rice.

**Note: The word 'kaffir' is a highly offensive racial slur of colonial South African origins. It was originally directed at black Africans. The popularity of the fruit among these slaves is thought to have led to its common name. It's unfortunate that this name has stuck but if you must use the 'K' word, try to mispronounce it, e.g. 'kaff-eer', never 'kaff-uh'.


  1. I have an abundantly fruiting Karrir lime tree. The fruit is very juicy and I use it as well as the leaves and zest in a lot of recipes. The tree grows in a fairly moist area of the garden and is sheltered. My favourite tree ? Bjw

  2. Hi Bjw thanks for the comment. I also love my Kaffir Limes. Their leaves have to be one of my favourites to crush & sniff as ramble in the garden. I find though the juice to be incredibly bitter and probably wouldn't use it myself in cooking. Here is a great article i read the other day about using Kaffir Limes in cooking may be of some interest. Cheers Troy.