I have a slightly embarrassing confession to make, folks. Before a month or so ago, I had never worked with kaffir lime leaves. Yes, I am ashamed. As such, let me tell you, these things are amazing.
I work with Asian flavors a great deal in my own cooking, and I pride myself in having a fairly decent grasp on various Asian ingredients. Needless to say, I should have experimented with kaffir lime a long, long time ago.
Let’s start with the understanding that there is an insurmountable myriad of Asian ingredients out there. There’s everything you could have (and probably never have) imagined at an Asian market, including the aisles and aisles of sauces, seasonings, dried vegetables, fish, meat, and more. It’s daunting for someone who already knows about the ingredients, let alone those of us (myself included) who are fairly new to the cuisine.
Having said that, please allow me to offer some relief. It’s easy: start small with lime leaves. Kaffir lime leaves are one of several fresh ingredients you can pick up at the Asian markets, which are labeled and fairly easy to find. It’s located in the fresh produce section usually near other herbs, like cilantro, green onions, or Thai basil.
Kaffir lime (sometimes labeled simply “lime leaf”) is an ingredient native to Southeast Asia, most commonly utilized in Thai cuisine. The minute you rub the outrageously aromatic leaves between your fingers, it releases a concentrated limey aroma. Their flavor is, obviously, reminiscent to common limes, but even stronger, more fragrant. Basically, it’s like mutant limes with five times the potency minus all the juice. That signature, unique flavor in Thai curries? It’s the kaffir lime.
In terms of preparation, the leaves are lightly muddled, or “bruised,” to release their oils, and then they’re added to fish or chicken stock to enhance soups, stews, and curries. The flavor pairs beautifully with freshly grated ginger, garlic, chilies, lemongrass, and of course, coconut. The leaves can also be steeped in hot liquid and then strained to impart a more modest flavor. For example, you could make a simple-syrup for cocktails, or you could steep the leaves in milk as a base for custard or ice cream.
Thai curry would make a delicious new addition to your recipe arsenal, and with the help of fresh kaffir lime, it will undoubtedly be a stand-out. You can achieve the quintessential curry with only a handful of ingredients, all of which are attainable at just about any Asian market.
Kaffir Lime Thai Curry
- 5 to 6 stems kaffir lime (scant ½ cup leaves)
- 2 tablespoons ginger root, minced
- 2 large lemongrass stalks
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Thai chilies (or 1 if you’re not a spice lover, these guys are hot!), thinly sliced
- Scant 1 cup cilantro, leaves and stems separated
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- Fish sauce, to taste
- One ½ quart of chicken stock (for chicken curry) or ½ quart of fish stock (for shrimp curry)
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 pound of peeled, deveined shrimp or of cubed skinless chicken thighs
- In a large sauce pan heated to medium-high, add garlic, chilies, and ginger. Sweat the aromatics with 3 tablespoons of canola oil. Sauté for 2 minutes.
- With the handle of your chef knife, bash the base of the lemongrass stalks to break them, which will allow their flavor to permeate the broth more efficiently. Then chop it into large pieces. Cut off and discard the top half of the stalks, and remove any brittle outer leaves. Add the lemongrass to the pot along with 3 to 4 stems of the kaffir lime leaves. Bruise the lime leaves first just like you did with the lemongrass. Chop the stems off the cilantro, and add those to the pot as well. Stir together, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes.
- Add the stock, cover with a lid, and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes so that it develops the flavors. Remove the lid after 10 minutes so that the liquid will reduce by about a third.
- Strain the liquid through a mesh sieve, and press the solids to extract as much flavor a possible. Discard the solids, and return the liquid to the pan. Bring back up to a simmer, and add the prepped chicken or shrimp. Cook for several minutes, just until protein is barely cooked though. Shrimp will only take 1 minute, and chicken will take 5 minutes.
- Stir in the can of coconut milk, the juice of 1 lime, and the scallions. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and taste for additional salt if needed. The fish sauce is very salty, so be sure to taste for seasoning before adding more.
- Allow the curry to cool 5 minutes before serving (it will thicken slightly), and serve garnished with torn cilantro leaves and rice.
This beautiful, wildly flavorful dish will wake up your taste buds for sure, and it will definitely show you what you’ve been missing all this time. Who knew that a simple leaf could be the inspiration and backbone of such a delectable, kick-in-your-mouth, fantastic meal? Don’t let this amazing ingredient slip through your fingers for too long because you’ll regret it later.