Yesterday, I had planned to cook a Thai curry dish. When I checked the ingredient list, I found the name “fresh Kaffir lime leaves” which is difficult to find in my area.
I had bought dried Kaffir lime leaves in a grocery as a replacement, but they didn’t give the right flavor profile.
So, I decided to put together a list of the best substitute for Kaffir lime leaves I could find.
What is Kaffir Lime?
A Kaffir lime is a perennial shrub and a member of the citrus family. It’s mostly grown in Southeast Asia and some nearby countries including India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Since Kaffir lime leaves and fruits are sold frozen or dried in Asian markets outside to Asia, it’s not surprising if you cannot find them in your area.
This plant has hourglass-shaped leaves that would remind you of the citrusy aroma of lemons. New leaves are colored shiny green and turn to dark green as they’re mature.
The fruit is green and turns to yellow as it’s ripe, but what makes it different from other types of lime is the warty texture in its peel that you will easily notice at the first look.
Note that Kaffir is actually an Arabic word. In some countries, people don’t use this name, but they change it to “Makrut lime”. In South Africa, people call “K-leaves” when referring to Kaffir lime leaves.
What Does Kaffir Lime Leaves Taste Like?
Before discovering possible substitutes for Kaffir lime leaves, it’s important for you to know the exact flavor and scent of the leaves themselves.
In general, Kaffir lime leaves have a strong citrusy flavor blended with a note of pungency. They also have a bitter taste of green leaves that many people (including me) find it too tough to eat raw or alone.
There are numerous ways to take advantage of the distinctive flavor of this leaf. You can add it to curries, soups, sauces, marinade, Basmati rice, and so on.
Top 6 Best Substitutes for Kaffir Lime Leaves
1. Bay Leaves
They taste very similar to Kaffir lime leaves. When eaten whole, they’re also pungent and slightly bitter. However, the citrusy flavor of this plant is very mild which is not as strong as what you find in Kaffir lime leaves.
Fresh bay leaves are often used to season soups, seafood, sauces, stews and rice dishes in Thai, French and Mediterranean cuisine.
When dried, the bay leaf is considered as a herb having a somewhat similar slightly floral fragrance to oregano and thyme.
It’s a rich source of vitamins (A, C, folates, pyridoxine, etc.), minerals (calcium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, etc.), and essential oils (eugenol, chavicol, phellandrene, etc.) that are necessary for optimum health.
2. Lime or Lemon Zest
Although coming from different parts of a plant, lime zest and lime leaves are relatively close in taste. That’s because they both possess the sharply citrusy flavor and pungent scent.
Also, lime (fruit) is widely sold in groceries, so it’s not surprising that lime zest is the most popular replacement for Kaffir lime leaves.
Another good substitute for Kaffir lime leaves is lemon zest. But lemon zest adds a touch of slight sweetness in addition to the sourness of citrus.
This makes it unable to replicate the taste of Kaffir lime leaves as good as lime zest.
To use lime or lemon zest, you need to grate the zest from the fruit. You can do this with a good knife or a microplane (much easier). No matter which tool you choose, make sure you don’t grate the white portion.
Lime zest refers to only the colored layer of the lime peel, and it doesn’t include the white layer, which is extremely bitter and unpleasant tasting.
For a guide to grate citrus in 4 ways, check this video:
3. Persian Limes
Also called Tahiti lime, this is the most common lime in the US, so you can buy it easily in grocery stores.
Among various types of limes, this one has the most similar flavor notes that Kaffir lime leaves have. The juice is very fragrant, just like Kaffir lime leaves.
Besides, this kind of lime is usually seedless, which means that you won’t have to worry about removing the seeds out of your dish before serving anymore.
4. Lemon Thyme
Lemon thyme is a herb with small leaves that can be used to season meats, fishes, soups, and salads. Don’t mistake between lemon thyme and common thyme (thymus vulgaris).
Although they belong to the same area of scent, lemon thyme has a much more intense in lemony fragrance which is closer to Kaffir lime leaves.
It also gives you an earthy note without the bitterness you sometimes get from common thyme.
There are many reasons why lemon thyme is called a herb. Basically, it helps to enhance the immune system, control blood pressure and heart rate, prevent lung cancer, benefit neurotransmitters in the brain, relieve upset stomach, bloating and flatulence, reduces stress and fatigue, improve vision and skin, and so on.
5. Curry Leaves
If you’re cooking Indian curry but have nothing on hands to replace Kaffir lime leaves, then using curry leaves can be a choice.
Although curry leaves and lime leaves are different in many aspects, they give the similar citrus notes that might be enough to enrich the taste and smell of your dish.
Also, keep in mind that curry leaves are inevitable, so you have to remove them before serving the dish.
6. Other Citrus Leaves
Leaves of other citrus plants, such as limes, lemons and oranges, can be good substitutes for Kaffir lime leaves, although they cannot give the strong fragrance compared to what you would get from Kaffir lime leaves.
A simple way to boost the fragrance is adding more of them, perhaps doubling the amount if the recipe requires.
Best Way to Replicate the Flavor and Scent of Kaffir Lime Leaves
Kaffir lime leaves have a very complex and distinct floral note, which makes it really hard to be replaced with just one ingredient.
Therefore, my advice is to combine various plants. For example, the following mixture of bay leaves, lime zest and lemon thyme can be used in place of one Kaffir lime leaf:
- 1/2 teaspoon of bay leaf
- 1/4 teaspoon of lime zest
- 1/8 teaspoon of lemon thyme
While the bay leaves bring a slight touch of bitterness with floral notes, the lime zest provides a sharply citrus flavor with a pungent scent.
To boost fragrance, add a bit of lemon thyme. Together, they give you the close effect that you want to get from a Kaffir lime leaf.