The problem with recipes that require weird and wonderful ingredients is that you can sometimes get caught out. This post on kaffir lime leaves substitute ideas is for those moments, but we’ll also take a closer look at the ingredient itself and find a way to ensure you’ll never be without them again.
Let’s get started.
What are Kaffir Lime Leaves?
Kaffir lime leaves are the leaves of a citrus fruit bush that is native to tropical Asia, the citrus hystrix or Jeruk Limau, as it is know in Indonesia. This thorny bush can grow to quite epic proportions, with some known to exceed 35 feet in height. Your ordinary garden specimen, however, will likely call it quits at around 15 feet. (1, 2, 3)
The leaves themselves are beautifully colored, with a deep green hue that shines when they are at their freshest. The fruit (sometimes referred to as makrut limes), on the other hand, is quite an ugly beast that is covered in gnarly bumps and ridges.
Unlike the more common lime fruit that you’ll find in stores across the country, the kaffir lime doesn’t yield a great deal of juice, so it is the leaves that are most frequently used.
That said, certain cuisines will use the rind or zest of the fruit, while Cambodians are keen on turning the whole fruit into a candy-like food by crystalizing them as a sweet treat. (4)
What’s with the name?
Depending on where you’re from, this could possibly be the most offensive ingredient on the planet. Why? Well, the word kaffir has some awfully negative associations, especially in South Africa where the K-word is tantamount to using the N-word elsewhere.
It’s origins are unclear, but many believe that it is derived from the Arabic kafir, which roughly translates to “disbeliever” or “unbeliever”. The word is then thought to have been taken on by white colonialists and used to describe black Africans.
The word degenerated to such an extent during the apartheid era of South Africa that it may now land you in court if you are to use it as a form of hate speech in the country. (5)
However, there is also some debate that the kaffir lime takes it name from the Sri Lankan ethnic group who use the word in a self-descriptive fashion, while others claim that the fruit isn’t connected to either.
Obviously, I’m no etymologist, but I thought the subject was worth bringing to your attention before we move through the article. For the purposes of this post being understood by both search engines and those who are simply looking for a kaffir lime leaves substitute, I will continue to use the name by which the fruit is commonly known.
I hope you understand and I apologise in advance if any offence is taken by its usage here. Certainly, none is intended.
What’s the best kaffir lime leaves substitute?
Okay, so back to the true nature of the post – finding out what makes a good kaffir lime leaves substitute.
These leaves are generally used to bring a zesty, floral flavor to dishes, so replacing them can be difficult, if not impossible, if you really want to replicate an authentic recipe. Many chefs will even tell you that dried kaffir lime leaves are no substitute for fresh, so you can see that you are in for a difficult task if you’re looking for a completely different alternative.
However, there are a few things you can try that will get you close if you’re in a tight spot, but nothing will really compare to fresh leaves. Let’s take a look at some kaffir lime leaves substitutes:
Bay leaf, lemon thyme, and lime zest
This combination is probably the closest you are going to get to recreating the floral notes associated with the leaves of a kaffir lime.
The problem here is getting the right combination of flavors so that one doesn’t overpower the other. This can be especially tricky if you’re not altogether aware of what kaffir lime leaves taste like!
For most recipes, the correct balance would be to use half of a smallish bay leaf along with 1/4 tsp of lime zest and a little less fresh lemon thyme (maybe as little as 1/8 tsp). This should give you a pretty good alternative to kaffir lime leaves and make your dish as close to the real thing as possible without using the star ingredient.
Using lime zest on its own will not give you the full flavor profile that a kaffir lime leaf brings to the party, but it will impart that zestiness that is so essential in many Asian dishes. The key here is not to overdo it. If your recipe calls for just one kaffir lime leaf, then the zest from half a lime will be plenty.
Another alternative is to use the more commonly found Persian lime in your dish. These limes are perfect for adding the same zesty flavor profile as the kaffir lime leaf, but they will lack the complexity that the true ingredient brings to a dish.
It’s also important to remember just how powerful these little fruits are, so I wouldn’t recommend using the juice as such. Instead, simply chop your lime in half and add to the dish while it cooks. Use one lime, cut in half, for every 2 leaves required.
This will allow the flavors to make their way into the rest of your broth or base without packing too much of a punch. Just remember to take them out before serving!
Alternative citrus leaves
Leaves from other citrus fruit trees – limes, lemons, and even oranges – will again bring the desired amount of zing to your dish, but will lack the floral overtones you’ll get from fresh kaffir lime leaves. Upping the amount slightly can help here, so try using 3 alternative citrus leaves for every 2 kaffir lime leaves required.
Dried kaffir lime leaves, lime zest, and lemon thyme
If you happen to have some dried kaffir lime leaves handy and want to liven them up so they resemble the fresh variety more, you can follow the a similar route used with the bay leaf. This time, however, you’ll be using a whole lime leaf, 1/4 tsp of fresh lemon thyme, and 1/4 tsp of lime zest.
The addition of the lime zest and fresh lemon thyme will bring back some of the flavors lost during the drying process. Kaffir lime leaves lose a certain amount of their natural oils when being dried, and with them goes a lot of the leaves flavor and depth. Adding these two extra ingredients helps round off the flavor profile nicely.
Where can I buy kaffir lime leaves?
As you’ve probably gathered by now, nothing beats fresh kaffir lime leaves. The problem is, where do you buy them?
Your best bet is a local Vietnamese or Thai grocery store. Kaffir lime leaves are such an important ingredient for these communities that you’ll likely find good quality produce there.
Some other Asian store may only stock dried or frozen kaffir lime leaves. As we’ve already seen, the dried variety leave a lot to be desired, but the frozen option can be a great alternative.
As with everything else, you can also buy fresh kaffir lime leaves online these days. The quality of these leaves is surprisingly good, and don’t be scared of buying more than you need as they freeze really well at home providing you do so immediately. If you’d prefer, however, dried leaves can be bought online, too, as can powdered kaffir lime leaves.
How to use kaffir lime leaves
Despite being very flavorful and wonderful, kaffir lime leaves are not the kind of thing you’ll want to snack on, so they are used primarily in cooking, most commonly Asian soups and curries. Think bay leaf and you’ll be on the right lines when it comes to how to use them.
There are, however, some instances when the leaves may actually be eaten rather than used as a flavoring agent. Very thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves are sometimes added to stir-fries, Tod Mun, Panang curries, and Laksa, but seeking out authentic vegan versions of some dishes may prove to be a little challenging.
Another interesting way to use kaffir lime leaves is to flavor rice. Simply adding one leaf to your rice as it steams will impart a citrus zestiness that makes it the perfect accompaniment to lots of Asian dishes.
Storing kaffir lime leaves
If you’ve bought a batch of fresh lime leaves and are wondering how best to store them, freezing is by far your best option if you don’t intend to use them within a week or two. Refrigeration works brilliantly, but only if you intend to cook with them within the next fortnight.
To refrigerate, simply take a paper towel, run it under the tap and wring out so that it remains moist but not wet. Wrap your excess leaves in the damp towel and place inside a Ziploc bag. Seal it up and place your leave in the crisper drawer of your fridge.
To freeze, lay your leaves out on the bottom of your quick-freeze drawer so that they do not clump together. Once frozen through, you can then transfer them to a freezer bag before replacing in the freezer. Be sure to work quickly at this stage, though. There’s not a lot to these leaves, so they’ll thaw out extremely fast.
As mentioned above, dried kaffir lime leaves work better in certain dishes than fresh, and they also store pretty well, too. If you have a food dehydrator at home, drying your own is a breeze and another great way to store these flavorsome leaves.
If not, check out our best food dehydrator reviews once you’re done here!
Never go without…grow a kaffir lime tree!
If you’ve got the room and fancy a bit of a challenge, why not grow your own kaffir lime tree?
A steady supply of this otherwise hard to find ingredient will transform your cooking and give you something to enjoy too. Check out the video below from Logee’s Plants to find out how to grow your own kaffir lime tree:
If you want to get a head start, you can buy a kaffir lime tree online that is already established. All you have to do is look after it and enjoy those delicious leaves ?
That’s it, we’ve looked at a few kaffir lime leaves substitutes, explored some storage tips, seen how to use them, and even discovered that we can grow our very own lime tree. As ever, though, if you think I’ve missed anything out, just leave me a comment in the box below.
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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- RHA | Citrus Hystrix: Thai Lime | https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/157902/Citrus-hystrix/Details
- Barbara Barker | The Growth of a Kaffir Lime Tree | https://homeguides.sfgate.com/growth-kaffir-lime-tree-37844.html
- Citrus | How big does a Kaffir Lime Tree grow? | https://www.citrus.com/blog/how-big-does-a-kaffir-lime-tree-grow/
- Jum | Get to know: Thai Kaffir Lime | https://maejum.com/normal_blog/get-to-know-thai-kaffir-lime/
- Penelope Andrews, Chantelle Feldhaus, René Koraan | Jail time for South African woman using racist slur sets new precedent | https://theconversation.com/jail-time-for-south-african-woman-using-racist-slur-sets-new-precedent-94179