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I Spice: Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir lime leaf. (Monica Bhide)

True story: I called a certain organic grocery store to ask whether it carried kaffir lime leaves. The response: “Is that some kind of a cleaner?”

I figured the employee on the other end of the line had not understood me, so I decided to try the store in person. “Why do you want them?” asked a store clerk. “Don’t you know it’s illegal to sell them in Virginia?”


Recipe Included

I don’t think I have ever encountered so much misinformation about an herb. Granted, for many of us kaffir lime leaves are not as commonplace as mint. But in the Eastern part of the world, they are part and parcel of everyday cooking.

These double-lobed leaves add an unmistakable citrus aroma and flavor to soups, stews and curries. “As an emigrant, scents from my childhood always bring me comfort," author Pat Tanumihardja writes me in an e-mail. "And a whiff of kaffir lime (we call it 'jeruk purut' in Indonesian) never fails to transport me to my mum’s kitchen.

"One of my favorite dishes of all time is a grilled chicken that my mum makes using kaffir lime leaves and fruit (I have yet to find the bumpy-skinned fruit sold commercially here), candlenuts, garlic and sweet soy sauce [kecap manis],” she writes. "The leaf, which is actually two leaves together, is added to simmering curries to provide flavor but is generally not eaten. There are exceptions: When it is finely shredded, it can be eaten; for example, when added to fish cakes or soups."

Pat told me that when she moved to California many years ago, the first thing she did was buy a kaffir lime tree so she could just walk out to her deck and pluck some leaves. If you don’t have a tree, you can buy the leaves -- which, by the way, are legal in the United States. They are available at many Asian grocery stores and on; and, of course, you can do what I did once: Borrow a few from your favorite Thai restaurant.

Fresh kaffir lime leaves are found wrapped in plastic bags or on foam trays in the refrigerated section of the produce department. "I would avoid the dried ones, as they lack flavor and scent," Pat writes. If you won’t be using them all at once, place them in a freezer-safe resealable plastic food storage bag and freeze for up to three months. Rinse under cold running water before using, she advises.

When Pat told me how to use the leaves, it made me smile, because I always suggest the same method for their Indian counterpart, curry leaves: Crumple the leaves in your hand to release the essential oils just before using. That allows the scent and flavor to fully permeate the dish. (Which reminds me: Perhaps I need to do a column on curry [kari] leaves.) Use the whole leaf in coconut-based simmering sauces, stock-based soups, stir-fries and noodle dishes. If you want to cook them into savory pancakes, shred them finely before using. Spicy Ground Beef with Green Beans and this Crab and Papaya Salad show off the flavors of kaffir lime leaves well.

P.S. That double-lobed leaf can get you into trouble if you don’t know what you're doing, as Pat recalled: “When I was little and watching my mum cook, the kaffir lime leaves were already torn in two, and I saw them as single leaf blades [the double-barreled leaves actually are made up of the leaf blade plus a flattened, leaflike stalk]. When I was in college, a friend asked me for a recipe, and she ended up using double the amount of kaffir lime leaves I had intended. The leaves were cut into chiffonade [finely shredded] and eaten raw. She told me the dish was so bitter, it was inedible. I felt so bad!”

-- Monica Bhide

Vietnamese Chicken Curry (Ca Ri Ga)
Makes 6 servings (as part of a multicourse family-style meal)

This mild adaptation of an Indian curry has some Vietnamese twists: sweet potatoes and kaffir lime leaves. The leaves are available in Southeast Asian markets such as Duangrat's Market, 5888 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church (703-578-0622).

You can use a combo of white and sweet potatoes, if desired. For true, traditional flavor, use Vietnamese curry powder from an Asian market; D&D Gold is a popular brand. This golden curry mixture is similar to a Madras curry powder and is made of curry leaves, turmeric, dried chili pepper, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, allspice and salt.

Serve with freshly steamed rice or French bread.

MAKE AHEAD: It's best to allow the curry to sit overnight so the chicken really absorbs the flavors from the spice-rich gravy.

Adapted from “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking From Asian American Kitchens,” by Pat Tanumihardja (Sasquatch Books, October 2009).

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
6 kaffir lime leaves, crumpled (see headnote)
2 tablespoons Vietnamese or Madras curry powder (see headnote)
3 or 4 pounds chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces, or 3 pounds of bone-in chicken parts
2 1/3 cups unsweetened coconut milk (about 1 1/2 cans)
1 cup water, plus more as needed
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes and/or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat until the oil starts to shimmer. Add the onion and kaffir lime leaves; cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until the onion has slightly softened. Add the curry powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and cook for about 15 seconds, stirring, until fragrant.

Add the chicken, skin side down; cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until lightly browned (the chicken will not be cooked through).

Add the coconut milk and 1 cup of water, then the potatoes. Make sure the chicken pieces and potatoes are submerged in the liquid; add water as needed. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for at least 1 hour and preferably 2 hours. When the dish is done, the chicken will be fall-apart tender, and the gravy will be thick from the starch of the potatoes. Add 2 teaspoons of salt, or to taste.

Remove the kaffir lime leaves before serving.

Per serving: 867 calories, 48 g protein, 46 g carbohydrates, 56 g fat, 27 g saturated fat, 170 mg cholesterol, 302 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  October 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, kaffir lime, recipes  
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I wonder... was that grocer thinking of "qat" or "khat" (catha edulis) leaves? Those are a mild stimulant/euphoriant popular in some Mid-Eastern cultures; generally illegal in Europe and North America.

Posted by: heinpe | October 2, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Could be. I am not sure..

Posted by: mbhide | October 2, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I love kaffir lime (also called combava). Since I grow it, I always have fresh leaves, and once in a while I am lucky and get a few fruit.

Besides the traditional recipes of curries, I use it to flavor dressings, desserts, cocktails, chicken salad, salsa etc. The taste is always beguiling.

Thanks for featuring this not-known-enough herb.


Posted by: rowandk | October 2, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see these, one of my favorite Asian accents. I like putting a whole leaf or two into stocks and soup bases for a bit of a citrus lift. A little Kaffir goes a long way.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 4, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

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