What Are Kaffir Lime Leaves?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Kaffir Lime Leaves

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Kaffir lime leaves are a key ingredient in Thai cooking as well as other Southeast Asian cuisines. They are probably one of the most aromatic of all herbs and a wonderful addition to many Thai and Southeast Asian soups, curries, and stir-fries. The thick leaves are dark green and shiny on one side, and pale-colored and porous on the other. They are sold fresh, frozen, and dried.

What Are Kaffir Lime Leaves?

Kaffir limes (Citrus hystrix) are different from regular limes in that they are very bitter with bumpy skin. In Thailand, the kaffir limes are not consumed but are used mainly in producing household cleaning products. The leaves, however, are very aromatic and can be eaten if very thinly sliced or cooked. They are hourglass-shaped "double" leaves, meaning there are two leaves at the end of each stem. Kaffir lime leaves are sold fresh, frozen, and dried.

Before cutting or adding whole to dishes, the rib needs to be removed, which can be done with your hands or a knife. Kaffir lime leaves are approximately double the cost of fresh bay leaves.

Fast Facts

  • Place of Origin: Thailand
  • Distinctive Flavor and Aroma: bright and citrusy
  • Common Way to Use It: thinly sliced or cooked

Kaffir Lime Leaves Uses

Kaffir lime leaves are the Asian equivalent to bay leaves. They can be added whole to Thai curries, soups, and stir-fries (and removed before eating the dish), and can also be cut up into very thin slivers and added to spice pastes or used as a topping in a variety of recipes. 

How to Cook With Kaffir Lime Leaves

It is simple to add kaffir lime leaves to recipes as there is little preparation. (Take note that the joined leaves are considered two leaves.) If still attached to the stem (also referred to as rib or vein), remove it by folding the leaf in half; grasp the tip of the stem and pull down so it comes away from the leaf. What is left is a whole leaf without the rib. Use as-is or cut into very thin sliver-like pieces with a pair of clean scissors. The rib can also be removed with a paring knife, but the leaf with then be in two pieces.

Frozen lime leaves can be used right away or briefly rinsed under hot water to thaw and bring out the fragrance. Dried leaves should be crushed or ground before adding to a recipe, or they can be rehydrated. Note that dried lime leaves are not as aromatic or flavorful as fresh or frozen; if the dried kaffir lime leaves don't smell that fragrant, as some drying processes can diminish the aroma, it is best to increase the amount.

What Do They Taste Like?

The bouquet and taste of kaffir lime leaves are quite strong. The flavor is bright, fresh, distinctly citrus, with more lime than lemon, but without the same sharpness of the Western fruits.

Kaffir Lime Leaves Recipes

Many Thai recipes, such as fried rice, feature lime leaves as a key ingredient. If a recipe calls for kaffir lime leaves, and you cannot find them or choose not to use them, do not substitute with another ingredient; there is no replacement for the unique flavor the kaffir lime leaves impart to a dish.

Where to Buy Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir lime leaves can be purchased fresh, frozen, or dried from Thai or Vietnamese food stores (some Chinese food stores carry them too). In Asian food stores, the leaves will be in the fresh produce section alongside the other herbs, in the freezer section, or with the dried herbs. A few of the larger regular supermarket chains in the U.S. and Canada are starting to sell lime leaves as well.

When buying fresh kaffir lime leaves, look for dark green, shiny leaves (on one side; the other is dull) without any browning or yellowing. The aroma should be very potent and distinct. Fresh leaves will be packaged loosely in a plastic bag, or in bulk, and are sold as the "double leaves." Dried and frozen kaffir lime leaves are sold in sealed pouches. Ground dried kaffir lime leaves are also available, which is sold in resealable bags and canisters.

It is possible to grow kaffir lime at home. In warm climates, the tree can be planted outdoors, but in colder areas of the U.S., the tree should be grown in a container that can be brought inside before the first frost. The kaffir lime tree needs full sunlight, regular feeding, and moderate watering (the roots should be on the dry side). The fruit can be harvested between May and October.

Storage

Kaffir lime leaves can be stored in either a zip-top plastic bag or glass jar and kept at room temperature for one week. For longer storage, place in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for up to a year, or the freezer where they will last beyond that. You can also dry the leaves by hanging them upside down in a dry, dark, and warm room; dried leaves will last up to three years.

Nutrition and Benefits

What makes kaffir lime leaves smell so good is also what makes them good for you. The essential oils that create the leaves' fresh aroma can positively affect digestive and oral health, stress levels, skin, and hair.

There are compounds in kaffir lime leaves that help to stimulate the digestive system, assisting in warding off constipation and indigestion. The leaves can also improve oral health as the oils can eliminate harmful bacteria on the gums. Inhaling kaffir lime oil may help to reduce anxiety, stress, and fatigue; in fact, there are certain spa treatments that include kaffir lime. The oils are said to kill bacteria that cause acne and reduce skin inflammation, and the antioxidants have been shown to reduce the signs of aging. The antibacterial properties may also assist in healing wounds.

Kaffir lime oil is found in shampoos for its effectiveness in untangling and cleansing hair. In addition, the leaves can be used to ward off insects as kaffir produces citronella oil.