A Kaffir Lime Tree Will Spice Up Your Kitchen

The botanical name for the Kaffir lime is Citrus hystrix. Hystrix means porcupine in Greek and when you see the thorns on an established plant, you’ll understand why it is so named. Fresh Kaffir lime leaves are the building blocks of many classic Thai dishes. That zesty cuisine derives its luscious flavor in large part from the fragrant double-lobed leaves of this unique citrus. The dried-out kaffir lime leaves found on Asian grocery shelves have lost most of their oils, hence most of their flavor. And there are no real substitutes. The only way to have a steady supply of these aromatic leaves is to grow your own.

When you’re ready to use your first leaf, roll it up and slice thinly. The aroma released as you chop is clean and exhilarating, yet it’s only a prelude to the flavor the leaves will impart to whatever you’re cooking.

Here’s a quick version of Tom Kha Gai:

Heat 2 C of chicken stock, add 4 Kaffir lime leaves, chopped as above. Then pound a stalk of lemongrass and chop it into 6 lengths and drop the pieces in. Add thinly sliced 1 TBSP of galangal, 3 TBSP fish sauce, 2 TBSP lime juice. Bring to boil, add a chicken breast cut up, along with about ½ C of coconut milk. Throw in some Thai chile peppers to taste, sliced very thin and seeds removed, anywhere from 1-6 peppers. Cook for a few minutes, until the chicken is done. Serve with chopped cilantro.

The fruit of the Kaffir lime is also used in Thai cooking. You can grate the zest and then pound it with other spices to make an excellent green curry. The juice adds complexity and depth to many dishes.

Traditionally, Kaffir lime juice is also used as a cleansing agent. Add a spoonful of juice to a cup of water, then apply to loads of laundry, hair or mouth.

The Kaffir Lime tree is a forgiving plant. It can take dry winter heat and less than ideal conditions and still generate enough leaves for the most prolific cook. If you want the small bumpy fruit, then you’ll have to provide enough light for flowering. A spot in a sunny window works fine during the winter months. Since Kaffir limes are frost-sensitive, consider indoor placement when planning the care of your tree. You couldn’t ask for a better centerpiece for your kitchen table, and it’s a perfect vantage point for enjoying the glossy sheen of the leaves and the fragrance of the flowers.

For optimum growth of your Kaffir lime tree, make sure its container provides excellent drainage. Terra cotta naturally provides aeration, but larger-sized pots are heavy. Some of the new resin containers are very attractive, have built-in saucers, and are constructed with several drainage holes at the bottom. If you buy a plant in a 4″ x 6″pot, transplant it fairly soon into a larger container with minimum dimensions of 8″ diameter and 10″ depth. Perlite is a helpful addition to most potting soils because it ensures aeration of the plant’s roots, something all citrus need. Once planted, fertilize your tree with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer on a regular basis. It’s always preferable to fertilize weekly, weakly. And don’t forget to crush a leaf when you need a quick pick-me-up. Your beautiful Kaffir lime tree will readily supply more.