What Can I Substitute for Kaffir Lime Leaves in my Thai Dishes?
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Posted on 31 May 2015 20:27

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There are a number of exotic ingredients that you may not always be able to find for your Thai home cooking, especially fresh. One ingredient that may be hard to find is Kaffir lime leaves. They are especially useful in Thai curries and are also found in stir fries.

Kaffir lime leaves come from the makrut (makrud, magroot) lime plant, a shrub that is common in Southeast Asia. They are sometimes sold dried or frozen at Asian markets in the U.S. opt for frozen if you are making a choice, and of course, buy fresh when you can get them. Freeze any leftover fresh leaves. They will be fine for up to six months, if not longer.

Fresh makrut leaves are best, but frozen are probably second best. Many cooks will debate whether lime leaves should be bothered with at all if fresh leaves are not available. They have a citrus and pine scent that is more like lemon verdana than lime. Both the leaves and the zest of the fruits are used. The fruits are small and dark green with a knobby peel. These are very hard to find outside Thailand.

Be Careful of the Word Kaffir

As time goes by, you may stop seeing the leaves being called kaffir. Kaffir is a derogatory term in Arabic, and it was once used by Afrikaaners to black Africans. People in South Africa tend to refer to kaffir lime leaves as "K-leaves." Recipes in Thai cookbooks sometimes use the term "makrut." Often, they are simply called lime leaves or wild lime leaves.

fresh-kaffir-lime-leaves.jpg

Fresh Kaffir lime leaves

fresh-kaffir-lime-leaves.jpg

Fresh Kaffir lime leaves



Other Names for Kaffir Lime

The scientific name is Citrus hystrix and the plant is part of the Rutaccae family.They are known by various other names throughout Southeast Asia. Besides makrut in Thai, they have been known as leech lime. Other names are:

  • Indonesia - jeruk purut
  • Bali - juuk purut
  • Malaysia - limau purut



The "kaffir" (or kieffer) name is thought to have originated hundreds of years ago. In Arabic, the word comes from the word kafara and means "infidel." It is said to have been used by Muslims to describe unbelievers, and is a common term of abuse in Western India. The most commonly known abusive use of the term was the aforementioned use by white Dutch immigrants to South Africa to refer to native Africans.


kaffir-limes.jpg

Fresh Kaffir lime fruits (Citrus hystrix)
image by David Monniaux via wikimedia

kaffir-limes.jpg

Fresh Kaffir lime fruits (Citrus hystrix)
image by David Monniaux via wikimedia




Why it came to be applied to citrus hystrix, we cannot be certain, but it was probably meant to refer to the fruit being inferior to other limes. Although this was soon found to be an unwarranted description, the name stuck.

Buying Fresh Kaffir Lime Leaves

As mentioned above, you can usually find dried or frozen kaffir lime leaves in Thai specialty markets or other Asian markets. Fresh leaves, as well, may sometimes be available. Ordering fresh kaffir lime leaves online can be hit or miss. If there are any delays in shipping, the leaves will likely be wilted and starting to rot once you get them. However, many customers report good product.

If you do find good fresh leaves, go ahead and stock up on them and freeze any leaves you do not want to use immediately. Clean and dry the leaves thoroughly before placing in a freezer-safe plastic storage bag. They will last a very long time in the freezer.

What to Substitute for Kaffir Lime Leaves

It is not true that there is no substitute for kaffir lime leaves in Thai cooking. You can simply substitute lime zest to get a wonderful fresh lime scent and citrusy flavor that adds zing and freshness to your dish. A regular "everyday" Persian lime, like the kind you find at grocery stores, will do just fine. Better yet, use a combination of lime and lemon zest. Generally, about 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of finely chopped lime zest can be used in place of one kaffir lime leaf. Try one teaspoon of lime zest and 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest, and then adjust to your taste.

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