Thai Kitchen Apprentice
Makrut and Bai Makrut (citrus hystrix)
When I was growing up, we used many citrus fruits in our family kitchen: lime, key lime, kaffir lime and calamansi, to name just a few. We use citrus juice in Thai cooking and when it comes to juice we depend largely on lime juice; most other citrus juices are for fun and creative cooking while they are in season. Kaffir lime is an exception. It was never important for its juice but rather for its precious rind.
Kaffir Lime (citrus hystrix), Makrut in Thai, is a bumpy citrus fruit that has a great deal of aromatic essential oil in the rind. In Thailand and Laos, we use the rind in curry paste. My grandmother would cut a kaffir lime in half and rub the lime on her head to massage her scalp and condition her hair.
Kaffir Lime Leaf ~ Bai Makrut is known as kroy saoch in Cambodia. These shiny, dark green, double-lobed leaves are used extensively in Thai, Lao and Cambodian cuisines as well as in the neighboring countries of India, Burma, Malaysian and Indonesia. For Thais, whole kaffir lime leaves have endless possibilities. They are an important ingredient in soups such as Tom Yum and Tom Kha, and are also always in curries. Whole kaffir lime leaves are used like bay leaves. The essential oil in the fresh leaves imparts flavor quickly and easily in boiling liquid, but the leaves themselves are not for eating. We never use dry kaffir lime leaves in Thailand. Letting them dry allows the delicate essential oil to disappear and nothing is left in the dry leaves. Ideally you want to freeze the fresh leaves right away while their moisture helps trap all of the essence.
When I was growing up, each home had one or more large kaffir lime trees in the back yard. The fresh leaves is the price that the trees pay for their alluring fragrance with citrus and floral notes. Besides using whole kaffir lime leaves in Thai soups and curries, another way to use the leaves is as a very fine chiffonade.
The tender fresh leaves are ideal for cutting into fine chiffonade then adding to fish cakes or salads. There is no substitute nor any other ingredients that can truly imitate the alluring fragrance and flavor of kaffir limes. To avoid frustration, I keep a pound of frozen kaffir limes in my freezer for emergencies and for convenience, but I use fresh ones any time they are available at the store. I seldom chiffonade frozen kaffir lime leaves.
Thai Kitchen Apprentice
My mom is famous for Hua Mok – steamed fish cake in banana leaves. I was so proud of how people in the village raved about her Hua Mok that I found an opportunity to make her my business partner. I asked her to make Hua Mok and I would sell them right after school, around 4 to 5pm. That way people in the villages could purchase them for a snack or as a main dish for their family. She agreed and I became an apprentice cook at her side. The valuable lesson I learned was to shred the kaffir lime leaves into the finest slivers. A fine chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves is a high point of Thai cuisine, so it is important to be patient and to practice cutting the leaves; there is no compromise. The fine chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves is incorporated into many recipes: Tod Mun (fried fish cake), Hua Mok (steamed fish cake in banana leaves), Kao Yum (rice salad), Pla (spicy Thai herbal salad with meat, poultry or seafood), Phanang curry and Chu Chi curry. These are traditional Thai dishes that are always served with generous amounts of fine chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves on top.
I took the three pictures below when I visited Koh Kred, an island village of ethnic Mon people outside of Bangkok. For me, Koh Kred is a culinary treasure island. It is famous for traditional fried fish cake or steamed fish cake. Both recipes use extreme amounts of fine slivered kaffir lime leaves. In Koh Kred I visited Pha (Thai for Auntie) Mu and savored her steamed fish cake in banana leaves. She also kindly let me take her picture as she spent her time chiffonading kaffir lime leaves while selling her Hua Mok.
To chiffonade, layer three to four kaffir lime leaves and fold, then, holding them tightly, use a sharp knife to thinly slice them (see picture below). I tell my students that I often cut the air seven times to control my knife then I may succeed with three perfect fine slivers. There are two errors you are likely to make while cutting: one is cutting the air instead of the leaves, the other is cutting too big a slice. Cutting the air indicates that you are close to perfection. When the leaves are too old and tough, I would prefer not to chiffonade them at all – eating one will feel like you’ve eaten a fish bone. Only the tender fresh kaffir lime leaves are good for this.
I have posted many photos to give you a good sense of how Thai cuisine depends on the flavor of the kaffir limes and kaffir lime leaves. Today kaffir lime leaves are easy to find in America and around the world. I hope I have inspired you to incorporate this alluring citrusy sense and flavor in your cooking. You can use kaffir lime in practically everything!
Pha Moo spends many hours chiffonading her kaffir lime leaves as there is no shortcut for this step. Often, when I make a fine chiffonade in a classroom, students who are across the room will pause as they notice the alluring fragrance. The food’s citrusy taste is easily noticeable and appreciated.
Pha Moo’s steamed fish cakes are so scrumptious. Her regular customers come from the neighborhood and from Bangkok.
A famous Pho Noodle stall in Hanoi provides a fine chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves and Thai chili for customers to add to the Pho Ga, Chicken Noodle Soup.
Please click photo for Kroeung Khmer curry paste recipe
In Siem Reap, Cambodia at Le Tigre De Papier cooking class, a member of my tour learned how to add kaffir lime leaves to Khmer curry paste.
In Phuket, the BoatHouse Cooking School teaches students to make a fine chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves for Pla Salad.
Phuket Spicy Devil Soup – Tom Prade Gai at Palai Seafood Restaurant
Coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with southern lime at Nahm Restaurant in Bangkok by David Thompson
Please click photo to see Pranee’s Southern Thai Rice Salad Recipe
Please click photo for Pranee’s Salmon Fish Cake Recipe
- Pranee’s Tom Yum Martini (ilovethaicooking.wordpress.com)
- Wild Salmon Cakes with Kaffir Lime and Ginger – Polpette di salmone (houseofannie.com)
- Kaffir Lime and other Citrus Pleasures (nytimes.com)
- Thai fish cakes to make at home (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- ~Thai Vegetarian Green Curry with Chanterelle Mushrooms Recipe~ (ilovethaicooking.wordpress.com)
- Kaffir Lime and Other Citrus Pleasures (dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Thai Vegetarian Green Curry with Kaffir lime leaves (ilovethaicooking.wordpress.com)