Kaffir Lime Leaves: A Controversial Name For A Flavorful Herb

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Kaffir lime leaves are often marketed as “Makrut lime leaves” in order to avoid the racist connotations of the word “Kaffir.” The lime tree that produces the leaves has its origins in Southern Asia. The origins of the name are somewhat more complex. A British reference text written in 1888 explains how it came about: Indian Muslims used the Arabic word “kafara” to describe products that originated in Southern Asia. The word “kaffir” comes from kafara, which means infidel. The plant kept its name when it made its way to Africa where the word was already in use as a racial slur. The use of kaffir as a slur came from Arab slavers who used it for their African slaves. The word was adopted by white South Africans and would go on to become widely used in South Africa as the Afrikaner equivalent of the “n-word.”

Flavor profile of kaffir lime leaves

The leaves of the kaffir lime tree have a distinctive citrus fragrance and flavor with a floral accent. The flavor and aroma of the leaves are quite different from those provided by other citrus plants. It can be described as being a combination of lemon, lime and mandarin orange. The flavor is so pronounced and unusual that some cooks suggest omitting the leaves if you cannot find them, rather than try to replace them. In addition to their flavor being unique, kaffir lime leaves are also potent. They can easily overpower other less assertive flavors, so you must use them in moderation.

Health benefits of kaffir lime leaves

The leaves of the kaffir lime tree along with the rind contain a range of organic compounds that provide health benefits. Those compounds include:

  • Limonene: Limonene is one of the compounds responsible for the strong fragrance of the limes and the leaves. It has been shown to help with various health issues including acid reflux and other digestive problems.
  • Citronellol: This terpene aldehyde is another contributor to the flavor of kaffir lime leaves and also has antimicrobial properties.
  • Antioxidants: Research has shown that extract from the leaves are able to scavenge hydroxyl radicals and inhibit lipid peroxidation.

The extract from kaffir lime leaves can be used for:

  • Dental health: These lime leaves have been shown to inhibit the biofilm formation that streptococcus mutans causes. Streptococcus mutans is a pathogen and is considered to be the main cause in dental cavities.
  • Cancer prevention: The antioxidants in kaffir lime leaves make it potentially useful for fighting liver, cervical and oral cancers.
  • Alleviating inflammation: The extract from kaffir lime leaves can be applied topically to inflamed areas. The topical application is considered effective for treating conditions like arthritis, gout and edema.

Common uses of kaffir lime leaves

The leaves from the kaffir lime tree are used in many different Southeast Asian cuisines. Cooks steep and discard the leaves like bay leaves, or slice them thinly; they are never eaten whole. Thai cooks use kaffir lime leaves in dishes like tom yum soup; Laotian cooks use them to make Krueng, which is the base spice paste used in many dishes from Laos. The leaves also show up in dishes like Sayur Asam from Indonesia as well as in dishes from Malaysia and Burma.