What Are Makrut Lime Leaves and What Do I Do With Them?

This special ingredient adds a unique flavor to a variety of dishes

Photo: Ewapee / Shuttertock

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

On a trip to Bali more than a decade ago, I developed an addiction to banana curry. The combination of savory coconut broth, hot chilies, and sweet banana rocked my taste buds in a way I wasn’t expecting but really, really liked. At home, trying to recreate those seductive Indonesian flavors was harder than I imagined. No matter how much lemongrass, galangal, garlic, or citrus I added, my version always fell flat. Through trial, error, and sheer determination, I finally discovered the missing link: Makrut lime leaves.

There’s something really special about this tropical plant’s taste and scent: It’s highly aromatic, and the flavor profile merges citrus with a fresh “green” piquancy, adding brightness to anything it’s paired with—especially Southeast Asian dishes. The thorny Makrut lime tree, which is native to that part of the world, also produces an actual lime, but it’s the leaves and their lovely pungency that gets cooks from Singapore to San Francisco salivating.

Finding dried Makrut lime leaves in the spice aisle of mainstream grocery stores is relatively easy, but it’s well worth the trek to the nearest Asian supermarket to get your hands on the fresh stuff. (It’s also available at online retailers like Amazon.) Look for them in the fresh herbs section, alongside the chilies, Thai basil, and cilantro. The leaves, which are double-lobed and resemble a thick green mustache, have a vivid hue and invigorating scent. They take well to freezing, too; I’ve kept a bag in my freezer for more than a year without losing any of the leaves’ vibrant color or potency. (Note: You will often see the term ‘kaffir’ lime used, but there are many who find that term offensive.)

The leaves generally aren’t eaten; they’re used simply to imbue curries, soups, and other dishes with their gorgeous flavor. Add a few to your next curry or Asian-inspired soup, and either eat around them or pluck them from the pot before serving. You can also toss a few leaves into your basmati rice as it cooks to impart extra depth of flavor, and I sometimes chiffonade tender young leaves (not the larger ones, which develop a tough spine as they grow) and toss into rice-noodle salads.