Kaffir Lime for a Better Lemon Drop Martini

(Last Updated On: March 22, 2017)

kaffir limeKaffir Lime is a great addition to your kitchen. Its strong, fresh flavor enhances mixed drinks as well as playing a key part in many Asian recipes. People also call this bumpy citrus the Thai Lime or Makrut Lime.

What is a Kaffir Lime?

The kaffir or makrut lime is a citrus fruit (Citrus hystrix) native to southeast Asia. It is bumpy green or yellow and the size of a child’s fist. The leaves and rind of the fruit impart a distinctive flavor in Thai and other Asian cuisines. In addition, the tree does not tolerate frost. As a result, in the US the fruit and trees are most readily available in Hawaii, Florida, California and Arizona.

Like other limes, the kaffir lime starts out green and then turns yellow if left on the tree to ripen. It may be used in either state. A kaffir lime may be stored at room temperature for a week and in the refrigerator for a month. A kaffir lime yields 1.5 ounces of intensely flavored juice and has many seeds.

The kaffir limes at Honokeana Cove are 2.5 to 3 inches (6 to 8 cm) in diameter, larger than typical supermarket limes. This may be because the tree is full-grown and mature, or it may be that the Cove limes are one of the many hybrid species that exist.

Everyone seems to agree that the rind and juice of the kaffir lime is very flavorful, perhaps twice the intensity of a normal lime. The leaves and rind are essential to many Asian dishes. In addition, you can expect it to be valuable in many other applications. Some examples are marinades for fish, and mixed drinks that use citrus flavors.

kaffir lime

A kaffir lime and its abundant seeds

Don’t Request a Kaffir Lime in South Africa

The origin of the term Kaffir Lime is uncertain. Since kafir in Arabic means “non-Muslim,” perhaps Arab traders used this name to describe a fruit imported from non-Moslem countries.

However, Europeans also adopted variations of the word kafir to refer to various peoples of southern Africa. As a result, in the post-Colonial era the term kaffir evolved to become a racial insult in South Africa. In fact, the word is so offensive that in that country it is inappropriate for polite speech. Instead, people may refer to “the k-word,” in close analogy with “the n-word” in the United States.

Because of the word’s insulting associations wholesalers, purveyors and culinary experts have experimented with other terms to avoid any offense from saying “kaffir lime.” Consequently, you will find this fruit referred to as Kieffer Lime (sometimes Keiffer Lime) as if someone named Kieffer had something to do with it. Furthermore, since the Thai term for this fruit is makrut, one food encyclopedia recommends using the term Makrut Lime. However, this word has been slow to catch on in English, since it substitutes one foreign word for another foreign word without any self-evident rationale.

If we feel compelled to make a change, the best solution is one that Frieda’s Specialty Produce uses: just call the fruit a Thai Lime due to its wide use in tom yum soup and other popular Thai dishes. Nevertheless, as of this date Kaffir Lime is the name that most people recognize for this fruit.

A Bounty of Limes Overhead

At Honokeana Cove, the west Maui property where our condominium resides, this odd-looking fruit drew my attention. Besides numerous flowers and banana trees, there is a large and productive kaffir lime tree on the grounds. Furthermore, this winter the tree was abundant with fruit, piquing my curiosity.

kaffir lime

Kaffir Lime Tree at Honokeana Cove, West Maui

Others more knowledgeable were ahead of me in this area. Our groundskeeper Juanito, a Filipino, gladly takes some of the fruit home to his kitchen. Also, our daughter Dana Bell found that the kaffir lime makes a piquant and tasty margarita. And finally, Andrea Nguyen, a Californian who blogs about Asian culinary traditions, has a fascinating blog about making a do-it-yourself citrus vodka with a kaffir lime.

Making Kaffir Lime Vodka

Last month as I experimented with variations of the lemon drop martini, I passed by the kaffir lime tree and felt a (figurative) bonk on the head. In a flash I had the vision of creating an integrated version of that cocktail by using the kaffir lime in all three roles: citrus infusion, juice and garnish.

kaffir lime

A winter harvest of kaffir limes

It was the work of a moment to scale the hillside and harvest some low-lying fruit with kitchen shears.

The infusion of kaffir lime into vodka turned out to be quite simple. A cheese grater converted the rind of one fruit to a pile of yellow and green shreds.

kaffir lime

The grated zest of a kaffir lime

I steeped the rind in one cup of vodka in a pyrex measuring cup at room temperature, stirring the mixture every half hour or so. The vodka rapidly extracted both color and flavor from the fruit. After one hour the zest infused the vodka and the green parts of the rind became yellower. One additional hour of soaking imparted only a little more color and taste to the vodka, so I removed the rind at that point.

kaffir lime infused vodka

Start of infusion . . . . . . After 1 hour . . . . . . After 2 hours

           Voilà, the Vodka!

OK, so we have an exotic version of a citrus vodka. What about its taste?

My Ketel One Citroen vodka has the flavor of lemon rind. It is lemony and a bit bitter when taken straight, but makes an excellent mixed drink. However, the kaffir lime vodka offers another experience. It has a strong lime flavor, different from and not as bitter as the Ketel One product. And the lime vodka also works well to make a lemon drop martini.

            What if I Don’t Have a Kaffir Lime?

The kaffir lime is one of the three limes most widely produced globally. Nevertheless, because the kaffir lime tree dislikes freezing weather, Americans and Canadians may not find a kaffir lime readily available where they live.

A standard supermarket lime is about 1.5 inches (4 cm) in diameter, considerably smaller than the kaffir lime I was using. If you use limes of this size, whether or not they are of the kaffir variety, you will need around twice as many. Doubling the lime count will give you sufficient rind to make the lime vodka, and enough juice to mix the drink whose recipe follows.

The Lemon Drop Martini (Hawaii Style)

The previous blog (Lemon Drop Martini, with Hawaiian Enhancements) discussed the proliferation of sugary pseudo-martinis. Then it gave the rationale and previewed the recipe for a lemon drop martini that incorporates certain changes:
– Partial substitution of gin.
– Changing the rim condiment from sugar to the sweet/salty Li Hing Mui powder.
– Using kaffir lime for the infused vodka, the juice in the drink recipe and the garnish.

The full instructions for this drink appear in the recipe for the Lemon Drop Martini (Hawaii Style), which appears below. If you click the image, it will open a PDF version that can be downloaded.

Recipe for lemon drop martini with kaffir lime vodka

Lemon Drop Martini Recipe – click to open PDF

I invite you to try some or all of the improvements contained in this recipe, and let me know whether you like them!

Have you noticed kaffir limes at your local farmers market or specialty market? Their bumpy shape is easy to spot, and they are worth looking for. They are a useful additional flavor to try in your cookery.

Sources for the Kaffir Lime:
– Kaffir lime fruit may be available at supermarkets stocked by Frieda’s Specialty Produce; also available online from bonanza.com and importfood.com.
– Kaffir lime trees are stocked by nurseries in warm climates, and available by special order in most U.S. states. Lowes stocks dwarf varieties that can be grown indoors in colder climates.

Image Credits:
Kaffir lime photos taken by Art Chester at Honokeana Cove. Martini glass in recipe from the Clown collection, designed 1993 by Anne Nilsson for Orrefors Crystal, Sweden.

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