Kaffir lime leaves and kaffir limes

makrut1Our kaffir lime (มะกรูด makrut in Thai) tree is starting to produce fruit!


The tree in our apartment

The leaves and fruit of the kaffir lime tree (citrus hystrix) are intensely fragrant.  The leaves provide a key flavor in Thai curries, soups, and stir-frys.  You have probably tasted it in dishes such as penang curry, or tom yam.  Often the leaves are chopped (chiffonade) finely in long strips and then go into the dish late in the cooking process.  For soups the leaves can go in whole, and earlier in the cooking process.  Recently La and I cooked with green peppercorns, and we tore the leaves into that stir-fry.  I also used these leaves in an earlier recipe for tom yum plaa.

Less commonly used whole in cooking are the knobby kaffir limes themselves.  One dish stands out in my memory with the fruit as a primary ingredient.  The scrumptious gaeng tepo แกงเทโพ “tepo” curry, usually made with fatty pork, coconut-based red curry, and large-sized morning glory or water spinach (here is a link to a Thai language video on how to make this dish, and here is a link to a nice example image). 

The rind of the fruit is, however, used to make Thai curry pastes which are used for a wide variety of purposes in Thai cooking.  These are used to make coconut-based curries, like red, green, penang flavors, and these pastes are also used in stir-fry cooking (here is a recent example of one that we made), and they might be used to marinate meats before they are deep fried (fish cakes for example).  Most people, even in Thailand, simply buy the paste pre-made from the market.  In the US, of course our pastes are sold in handy pre-sized cans. 


figure 1.

Nowadays kaffir lime leaves are readily available in well-stocked Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai markets.  The shape of these leaves are very unique.  You know them by the double-leaf shape (see figures 1 and 2).  In our Philly markets, we can get them fresh in little baggies (sometimes in the fridge section), and you can also find them frozen and dried.  There was a time, however, about 4 years ago, when they could not be found in our region.  We were living in Wisconsin then, and our area was apparently affected by a USDA restriction on the movement of these leaves to slow/stop the spread of a citrus greening disease. 


figure 2. Baby makrut!

During that time we found that we could buy young kaffir lime trees online.  That’s what we did.  So now, we no longer have to go to the market for these, we just cut some off when needed.  For those interested, I’ve seen small kaffir trees also for sale occasionally at my North Philly Cambodian market, and also at the Big 8 supermarket on Washington Ave.  Again, you can find these places via my maintained map of Philly Asian markets.

Kaffir limes are not found at markets (I have yet to see them anyway).  That said, the majority of recipes use the leaves only–only occasionally the fruit or rind of the fruit is called for.  I have seen dried kaffir lime peel at Southeast Asian markets.  That can also be used as a substitute in dishes like the aforementioned “tepo” curry.  If you are looking for this, South Philly’s 7th street would be the best bet.

About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
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10 Responses to Kaffir lime leaves and kaffir limes

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  7. Robert Evans says:

    My name is Robert Evans and I am on Facebook. I have been trying to find a local source for fresh Kaffir limes and plants in Philadelphia. Or seeds. From what I’ve read, seeds that are dried out first do very poorly when trying to germinate them under optimal conditions. My wife is from Indonesia and I have one small plant under grow lights in my basement. She strips the plant almost bare every time and then we have to wait until enough regrowth to harvest again. She’s been on my case to grow more plants, which I am willing to do. She even has a lot of Indonesian friends she thinks will buy the plants and leaves. Any chance of you being willing to send me some ripe fruit or seeds. Taking cuttings has not worked out for me yet. Thank you for your time and consideration.


    • Hi Robert, regarding your questions about cultivation, I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with growing kaffir lime trees from seeds. The tree we have was one we purchased as a seedling about 10 years ago. Ripe kaffir limes are incredibly rare in Philadelphia, and there may even be a ban on their transport. I’ve seen limes frozen in NYC, but not in Philly. I can tell you that Starter plants are pretty easy to come by in Philadelphia, and once I even saw one that was already producing fruit! Under normal circumstances (non-pandemic times), you can find young trees in front of the Big 8 supermarket on 16th and Washington, and there is a plant store that has them also in the Wing Phat plaza on 11th and Washington. Otherwise smaller Cambodian markets on South 7th have them (Chaihong for example). I think they need a lot of sun to produce fruit. Ours only did twice so far.


  8. Stefan Lynch says:

    Stumbled on your blog looking for some facing heaven chilis in Philly to indulge my deep dive into Sichuan cuisine during the pandemic and oh my! I have never travelled to Asia but got the Asian food bug living in San Francisco for a couple decades. One thing that made the move: my high-powered outdoor wok. One thing that didn’t make the move to Philly was my mature in-the-ground kaffir lime tree – and I miss it. The Calamansi tree too (and off topic but my epazote and hoja santa for great Oaxacan food). I’ve tried growing a potted tree indoors here but I think I was trying to get it as much sun as possibly in the winter and I kept it too close to the window and the cold eventually did it in. Any advice?Fortunately the family that owns Fu Wah around the corner keeps theirs alive and sells the leaves, but grandma tends it and the guy in the store doesn’t know her secrets.


    • Hi Stefan, thanks for checking in and great to hear about your interest in SE Asian cuisines. I’m jealous of your outdoor wok setup! The sunlight issue is a huge problem for us as well. We live in a rowhome that pretty much never has adequate light for plants that need it. We keep our kaffir lime tree outside in the summer and bring it inside when it gets too cold. Inevitably the tree goes dormant at some point, and it loses its leaves. Pretty much every year we assume we took it too far and the tree is really dead this time. Then, we put it outside when the weather warms, and the tree comes back to life (sometimes takes a month or two). Perhaps needless to say, we don’t have a good system. We did get a UV light for winter, and at times that seemed to help. But the tree tends to go dormant anyway and I don’t know why. We’ve had our tree for about 15 years, and I think this may be it’s last year as it didn’t come completely back to life this time (some new growth but just a little). We already bought a new seedling, so this winter will be another learning process I’m sure.


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