It is not always possible to have fresh ingredients to hand and so it is nice to know what your best options are. Makrut is no exception and even if you are planning on growing your own trees there is a timescale before harvesting!
Kaffir lime, also called makrut can be used as leaves in a decoction or chopped thinly. It can also be used as the peel or rind of the fruit used in salads and herb rubs and even as a paste for curries. The fruit is also used in pickles, where the cooking process takes a lot of the bitterness away.
I will just take you through some of the qualities we want to emulate before looking at replacements.
What Does Kaffir Lime Makrut Look & Taste Like
I think kaffir limes look a lot like the fruit of the bergamot tree as well, but the taste and use is far different.
The kaffir lime leaves are doubled with one seemingly growing from the last. Shiny leaves with a lighter color green on the underside to the top. The fruit of the makrut are like bobbled and knobbly limes with a thick peel.
As far as the flavor goes there is variation with how you cook and prepare but in general as an ingredient this is the 101 for kaffir lime.
Kaffir lime leaves taste like a floral citrus but with a pungent afternote that will mature when cooked in curries or stews. The makrut fruit is very bitter. In order to make kaffir limes palatable you will add a sugar or boil in salt before pickling. The zest is citrusy and pleasant as a garnish.
Let’s look at how we can replace this citrus flavor in different dishes.
Best Replacements For Kaffir Lime / Makrut Leaves
Makrut (kaffir lime) has a lot of health benefits that won’t be easily replicated but by using these substitutions you will find a good replacement for the taste and aroma.
- If you are using your makrut leaves in stews or curries then you can quite easily replace with bay leaves. The citrus note is there alongside the earthiness of bay leaves. So consider this when looking at other ingredients that offer a similar taste profile. It may mean you have to mix the recipe to reduce a flavor or bring in a little more.
- Lemon Verbena leaves are a favorite for replicating that intense citrus hit you get from kaffir lime leaves. Use in much the same way as you wouldn’t want to accidentally eat a lemon verbena leaf either. So remove from cooking before serving.
- When we use kaffir lime peel as a garnish it just brings a fresh zing of citrus and kind of highlights the other deeper flavors in a dish. To replicate makrut peel as a garnish go for lime or lemon zest. Where a recipe calls for zest of 1 kaffir lime use 2 standard limes or one lemon.
- If you have no lemons or limes for a garnish you can use lemon balm to replace kaffir lime zest. There is a minty background to the lemon balm or Melissa that you won’t get from makrut but there is a benefit to that as it adds to the zing of a dish. So not a true like for like replacement, but a great way to bring out the flavor of the rest of the dish. Zest of 1 kaffir lime = handful of lemon balm leaves.
- in the US Persian Limes are sold widely and will make a good replacement for kaffir limes. You can use in pickles and will notice the lack of true strength but you can add a few more mustard seeds to up the intensity instead.
- Instead of adding kaffir lime leaves to the start of cooking try using lemon thyme. Lemon thyme is a perennial and therefore tends to be available all year round. You will find that there is a herby flavor added to your dish, but the citrus notes are there and when added to lemon or lime zest as a garnish it works convincingly well.
- Finally you may choose curry leaves as an alternative to kaffir lime leaves. Not perfect and certainly not suitable for sweet dishes but it can imbue some of the same lighter notes and curry leaves do not taste of curry. Instead you will have a floral note with citrus and an earthiness that can be a bit over powering if used heavily. So again combine it in a more nuanced way. 2 kaffir lime leaves = 1 curry leaf + zest of 1 lime, added as a garnish.
- The leaves of other citrus fruit can work very well in Thai cooking. Just bare in mind that lime leaves are lighter in flavor than kaffir lime leaves. Therefore 2 kaffir lime leaves = 3 lime leaves (or lemon leaves). Use them in the same way for in any given recipe for a similar result and perhaps add a bit of zest at the end of cooking to really lift the dish.
Update – As well as finding a substitute for the leaves and limes there is also a good reason to find a substitute for the name Kaffir lime. For those from America and Europe it may not be a familiar slur but for those from South Africa it has come to mean an extremely offensive racial slur. Obviously when used for the tree it is not intended in an offensive manner but the plant is also known as Makrut lime, Thai lime, or Mauritius papeda.
What Next & Further Reading
- Growing Kaffir Lime Trees From Seeds Or Cuttings
- Kaffir Limes -Great Culinary Uses & Recipes
- How Often Do I Need To Water My Bay Tree?
- Curry Leaves & Bay Leaves Important Differences & Uses
Thank you for taking the time to read our article today. Let’s build a community of helpful home cooks and gardening enthusiasts and tell us your favorite substitutes and alternatives in the comments.