Mar 15, 2013

A Pair of Leaves

Outside on the porch it's humid and the orchids stare with stalwart pleasure at the cityscape dotted with turquoise gems of swimming pools and the neon glow of bougainvillea-draped massage parlors.

The flavor of kaffir lime leaves brings me to Bangkok, Thailand, where my older brother Colin lives with his wife Anna and their baby, Mirabelle on the eighth floor of a Bangkok apartment building. When I visited them last summer, I discovered that one of my favorite dishes was called tom yum, a hot and sour soup that is common throughout the country, and has such a fresh and uplifting flavor from the crushed lime leaves that I found myself wanting to eat it all the time, even for breakfast, accompanied by a cup of coffee and the happy squeals of my niece.

Even though I'm not presently in Bangkok, I am dreaming of warmer days, dreaming of evenings on the porch after work drinking a big glass of lemongrass iced tea and reading a book. In the interim, I must wait, and cook, and be glad for the tilt of the earth and the sun that breaks through the cold March cloud-cover, and for kaffir lime leaves.

Kaffir lime leaf has the unexpected fragrance of the first days of spring; it has an uplifting freshness, a clean sweetness like the smell of the color chartreuse. A quiet perfume, a limey familiarity, a comforting exoticism—all the things I need to help me wait for the first gorgeous days of summer.

And for some reason, these leaves always come in pairs.

I am not enough of a botanist to know why this is, but I find it charming, like these leaves have a romantic streak in them, to go along with their citrusy, plucky spirit. According to Cal Lemke of the Oklahoma Department of Botany, "as with all phyllodes, [kaffir lime leaves] are actually derived from winged petioles and thus have stem-like adaptations to xerophytism."


Citrus hystrix is a fascinating species, a spiny tree native to Indonesia and Asia (exact origin unknown) whose leaves and fruit are commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine. The leaves, just like bay leaves, are placed in soups or stews and then removed before said soup is served. But unlike bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves are often sliced up into little shreds so that they can be chewed and digested more easily. One of my mother's favorite snacks from Thailand were the cashews spiced with chili, salt and kaffir lime that would be placed in little bowls on the bar to accompany your cocktail. The leaves are used fresh more often than dried, since the flavor is brighter, but the dried leaves are good too, and perhaps more easily found. Depending on where you live, your best bet is to order them online, such as from But I found fresh leaves from a specialty fruit and vegetable market in Massachusetts (I called first). Another idea, if you're brave enough, is to ask at your local Thai restaurant, as they likely use them in a few recipes. In any case, here is a pair of recipes to go with your pair of leaves: one vegetarian style tom yum soup and one Bangkok Collins cocktail, because I couldn't resist.

Vegetarian Tom Yum Soup
Makes 4 first-course servings

6 cups water
6 kaffir lime leaves (or 3 'pairs'), bruised
4 slices galangal
1 lemongrass stalk, sliced into thin rounds
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
3 cups chopped bok choy
2 cups fresh or canned straw mushrooms or oyster mushrooms
1 bundle soba noodles, cooked according to package instructions (basically boil for 6 minutes and rinse under cold water)
1 TB fish sauce
1 TB nam prik Thai chili sauce
lime and cilantro for garnish

In a medium sized pot, begin boiling your water with the kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass and salt to make an aromatic broth. This will boil for about 15 minutes while you assemble the other ingredients.

Cook soba noodles according to instructions. Rinse and set aside.

After broth is sufficiently infused with the aromatics, add your bell pepper, bok choy, mushrooms and fish sauce and cook for 5-6 minutes. Turn off heat, and stir in nam prik and a big squeeze of lime. Place soba noodles in bowls and ladle the soup overtop, garnishing with cilantro and more fresh lime.

This makes a wonderful starter soup, but for a more filling version, add 1 cup cubed firm tofu or, for the traditional version, add a half pound of shrimp when you add the mushrooms.

Note: Either remove the kaffir lime leaves before serving or remind your guests not to eat them.

Bangkok Collins 

2 oz gin
1.5 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
.5 oz kaffir lime syrup
.5 oz lychee water
soda water
lime slices
lychee fruit

To make the syrup: Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar and 4 kaffir lime leaves in a pot. Bring to a boil, cover and set aside to infuse. Best infused overnight!

To make the cocktail: Place lots of ice in a tall, thin glass such as a Collins glass. Add gin, lime juice, kaffir syrup and lychee water and stir with a long spoon. Top with soda water, stir again, and garnish with lime slices and a lychee fruit. Canned lychee fruit in syrup can be found at Asian grocery stores.

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