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Kaffir lime leaves (Recipe: hot and sour shrimp soup)


If I lived in Thailand, or Malaysia, Sri Lanka or Australia, California or Florida or anywhere warmer than Rhode Island, I'd plant a leprous lime tree at the entrance to my house.

I know what you're thinking.

A leprous lime? Lepers??? Gosh, that sounds awful.

You're right. I'm not much of a gardener, and the Citrus hystrix isn't called "leprous" for nothing; the fruits are strangely lumpy-bumpy and, well, not very pretty. But when a plant is reputed to ward off evil spirits and the juice of that fruit makes a dynamite shampoo, I'd definitely take a chance. And when that plant also produces kaffir lime leaves, an essential ingredient in my favorite hot Thai soup, I'd oh-boy-yes want one in my garden.

Kaffir lime leaves -- also called makrut -- have a distinctive two-lobed shape, a glossy appearance, a leathery texture, and an unusual lemon-lime flavor. Leaves can be used fresh or dried. Fresh leaves will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a few weeks, and in the freezer for up to a year, and either way are much preferred to the dried leaves.

(The kaffir lime rind can be used like lime zest, but the juice is more bitter and assertive than our common Persian limes, so it's seldom used in cooking. You can substitute Persian lime for kaffir lime, but not the other way around.)

To prepare the leaves, break apart the two lobes. If your recipe calls for the whole leaf, you're good to go. Otherwise, fold each leaf in half lengthwise, and cut out the central rib. Then julienne the leaves into a fine shred for curry beef, or mince to use in salad dressing.

Hot and sour shrimp soup (tom yom koong)

An easy version of my absolutely favorite Thai soup, the name of which is transliterated a dozen different ways (tom yum gung, dom yam kung, etc.). Authentic spices and condiments make all the difference between this and a lime-flavored chicken soup. Serves 4 as a starter.


2 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock, or vegetable stock
1/2 lb medium shrimp, shells removed and reserved
2 Thai bird chiles, seeds removed, sliced (use more, or less, to taste; for fiery hot soup, leave the seeds in)
1-inch piece of lemongrass
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, or 1/2 tsp grated lime zest
1 cup canned straw mushrooms, sliced in half lengthwise
3 Tbsp fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)
3 Tbsp fish sauce


In a sauce pan, simmer the stock and reserved shrimp shells for 20 minutes. Strain, and return the stock to the pan. Add chiles, lemongrass and lime leaves, reduce heat to simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lemongrass and lime leaves, and add the shrimp and mushrooms. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until shrimp are done but not overcooked. Stir in the lime juice and fish sauce, cook for 1 minute until flavors combine, and serve hot.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Salt and pepper prawns

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Another reason I can't wait to have a garden -- I can plant whatever I want, no matter how visually unattractive the fruits are!

Lydia, I want to have a lime tree, too. In the past, almost all Vietnamese households in the north have at least one. If they live in the city, they grow lime trees in pot just for the leaves alone.

I love that soup. it´s almost impossible to find any condiments here, and I make do with tom yam paste. it´s not bad at all. I once tried to put in leaves from a lemon tree, which are aromatic but not what was needed. Now I pester my in-laws to plant lime trees(and meyer lemon trees)

For some reason I always leave these out when a recipe call for them. Guess I was intimidated by not knowing what they are. Thanks for the lesson!!

The Brits still remember 'kaffir' as a term of abuse - sort of the old Afrikaans version of 'nigger' - so when I had a jar labeled 'Kaffir Lime Leaves' on my shelf, I got some raised eyebrows.

But I told them that 'kaffir' also used to be a perfectly normal word... so they calmed down a bit.

My dried kaffir lime leaves don't smell like anything any more (probably kept them too long), but I got some fresh ones and froze them - they've kept much longer.

Kelly, if I lived in a different climate zone, I'd have a completely different garden. But I can grow herbs for a good long part of the season, late April through October, and that's been such fun.

Anh, I might try to do a container plant next summer, too. Wouldn't it be great to have your own supply of lime leaves?!

Lobster, it's my absolutely favorite Thai soup, and I love it very spicy. Sometimes I substitute lime zest from a Persian lime, but it's not quite the same.

Christine, the hardest part is finding the leaves in the market. They're available online now, and easy to store in the freezer.

Paul, I did read that about the term "kaffir", but both in the market and in most cookbooks, it's still used more than "makrut", so I chose to use it. And yes, originally it was not a term with negative connotations. The dried leaves are nothing compared to fresh or frozen, so I've stopped buying them, even as a backup. The frozen works just fine.

I'm so happy that I have a step-sister in California who sends me leaves from her tree! They do store in the freezer quite well, especially to be used in something like this. The soup sounds wonderful. Looks like a recipe I'd love to try.

My friend Anne keeps a keffir lime tree inside - it's small, maybe a foot tall with only a handful of leaves but obviously enough to keep her in keffir!

This is surely a sign that I should make this. RAsa Malaysia just had a post on it . It's my favorite thai soup too. I have frozen kaffir lime leaves in the freezer right now.

Have you any idea the other names for these leaves other than makrut? I REALLY CAN"T BELIEVE I cannot find these leaves in the Asian grocery store in California!!!! I think they are hiding from me using other names....now I just need to find out what names. :O

My parents have a lime tree and eveyr time I go back, I grab a bunch of leaves and freeze them to take home.

I've read about Kaffir lime leaves but had no idea what they looked liked. Thanks for this post and the beautiful photo above.


Kaffir lime really have a beautiful leaf. I also echo that they're hard to find in NH, another one of those flavors you can't quite imitate.

I love these lime leaves! When I lived in Chicago, I had no problem finding these in Vietnamese or Thai markets on the north side of town. I live in Northern California now (Palo Alto) and could not find them anywhere. One shopkeeper finally told me that "we don't sell them because people just grow them at home." The good news is she sold me a tree! The less good news is that the tree bears wicked-sharp thorns. Does anyone know if this worthwhile but prickly tree spreads? Right now it's living in a pot.

Kalyn, you are lucky indeed -- perhaps she'll send me some, too?! This soup is very light and, I believe, South Beach friendly.

Alanna, I had no idea the trees would grow indoors. My house is quite dark, so I don't think I'd have enough light for a tree -- but if I could, I would grow this one.

Veron, I saw the post on RM, too.

Tigerfish, sometimes it's called magrood, makrut, or kiefer lime. Have you tried looking in the frozen foods aisle in your Asian market? They're more common frozen than fresh, except in the largest Asian grocery stores -- at least that's true in my area. You can buy online, too. Here's one source:

Steamy, you are lucky, too!

Paz, the two-lobed leaf is characteristic of kaffir limes, though often when you buy them frozen, the lobes of the leaves have been separated already.

Callipygia, I agree, hard to get here. Online has been a great source for me.

Sharon, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I'm so surprised you can't find these in the markets. I've never tried to grow one, so cannot help you with the spreading issue. I hope another Pantry reader will have gardening advice for you!

I love this soup! I need to make it for myself.

This is my all time favorite Thai soup too...the veg version of course. Mmmm...with white rice!

Brilynn, this is my all-time favorite comfort soup. When I have a cold, this soup makes my nose run, and I feel so much better!

Meg, I'd love to know how you "macrotize" this soup -- what broth works best?

I do live in California, pretty near Thai town actually, and they can still be hard to get a hold of...the best solution I saw was a miniature potted tree they sell at the nursery. Next to the mini mandarin oranges (sigh) and mini pink-lemonade lemons. (double sigh.) Maybe they ship? I saw them at OSH.

I have never seen fresh kaffir limes or fresh leaves either (well apart from on TV but I'm thinking that doesn't count...). I have dried leaves though, and the def add flavour :)

Had no idea about kaffir being a derogatory word, will have to remember that.

I tagged you in a meme that asks "what five foods are you most ashamed to love?"

Rachael, see the link I left above for where to order online. But a nice potted tree would be great, since you live in a place where you can grow them. (Then I can get lime leaves from you!)

Kelly-Jane, I can only find these in Asian groceries, and then most often in the frozen department. They might be known by some of the other names (makrut, magrood, etc.) in Europe.

Hillary, thanks. I've already confessed most of my food sins in my posts here (I have many more than five....).

My grandparents used to have a lime tree in front of their house when we lived in the village, now the land has been razed and nothing was done with that plot of land. :( All those beautiful fruit trees are gone too. I will have to start growing one in the pot as soon as we moved to our new place.

Ninja, how sad to have the house and the trees gone, and nothing beautiful to replace it. I think having a tree will bring back wonderful memories for you.

I know so little about leaves that are used as flavorings - this is a whole special area of culinary research I'll have to look into further.

THat's a beautiful you've posted here Lydia! I've had tom yum soup before but they were always from ready-mix packets! yours sounds more authentic!

TW, these leaves are fairly easy to find in New York's Asian markets -- you'll have the option of fresh or frozen. They're used quite a bit in Thai and Indian cooking.

Valentina, I often find the packets too salty, and this soup should really be a balance of spicy and sour flavors. The kaffir lime leaves give it that authentic taste.

I've only cooked with kaffir lime leaves a few times but was pleased each time. I used to buy them from one of the Asian tables at a farmers' market in LA, but like others have said, they're hard to find. I'll have to get some again and try your recipe with the lemongrass-mmm. :)

Susan, if you can find the leaves in the frozen food aisle of a good Asian market, it's almost as good as fresh. Or maybe you'll have to plant a tree!

Who knew! Ugly fruit, ummm. I've read lots about these and always wanted to try them. I'm sure I've eaten things with them and not known it.

MyKitchen, I'm sure if you've eaten Thai soups that you've had kaffir lime. It's like Persian lime, on steroids!

Thanks for the link to my kaffir lime dressing. I've also thrown it in my comfort food fish pie when I have had no lemons on hand and any dish that needs a citrus zing to it.

Outspoken, welcome to The Perfect Pantry! Loved your dressing, and your blog, too.

I have a large orchard of Kiefer(Kaffir) Lime trees in Southern California. The trees are still young but I was planning to sell my crop in bulk to agents supplying the Asian markets.
I am suprized at the frustration you all have in trying to locate fresh leaves. I will do some research into the most efficient way for me to sell small quantities which I could send by mail.
My biggest frustration would be dealing with small transactions!!

Mike, please keep us posted. Fresh, high quality kaffir lime leaves are difficult to find in the small Asian markets near me.

I live in Chattanooga Tennessee zone 7 and I have one of these trees that came up in my garden about 5 years ago. I didn't plant it nor do I know how it got there, a bird maybe. I replanted it in a large pot andI bring it inside during the winter and take it outside during the spring, summer and fall.

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