Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

This month we look at the versatile lime, and how it’s used in Thai cooking.

 

4Since ancient times, mankind has prized lime trees for the juice and zest of their fruit, as well as their tangy leaves and fragrant blossoms. This useful citrus fruit probably originated in Southeast Asia, but Arab traders brought them to Palestine, Persia and North Africa, and they later spread to Europe and the Americas. Because we have bred lime trees for so many centuries and in so many places, today you can choose from several varieties. You’ll find two types of limes used in Thai cooking:

      The smooth-skinned variety is the common citrus lime (manao in Thai), native to China and Southeast Asia. They’re the same type that are grown in Mexico, Central America, Caribbean, and the Florida Keys – which is why they’re referred to as ‘key limes’ in the USA. The whole fruit is used in Thai food, including the peel in curry sauces and the juice for everything from fragrant sauces to refreshing shakes.

      The other type is the kaffir lime (magroot), which is slightly larger, and has a knobbly skin, but with a completely different smell and taste. The skin and leaves are used in cooking as flavouring, but the juice (what little there is of it) is not often used. The original name has negative connotations, as it can be a derogatory term for certain nationalities; so generally, it’s more

acceptable to use the Thai name – magroot. The skin of the fruit is used in curry pastes, and the leaves are used to flavour soups, curries and more. Magroot lime leaves are often used in Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Burmese, Malaysian and Cambodian cuisine, and give a distinctive flavour to dishes such as tom yum (spicy and sour soup) – a classic Thai dish. The leaves themselves are not eaten, but only impart their flavour to the dish. If you want to preserve a surplus of fresh leaves, it’s better to freeze them and use straight from the freezer. Dried leaves are available, but in drying the leaves, the aromatic oils are lost and the flavour diminishes.

      Limes are one of the cornerstones of Thai cooking, and you’ll find lime juice in nearly as many recipes as you find fish sauce. In fact, one of the most common and versatile sauces, prik nam pla, is just lime juice, fish sauce and sliced chillies. In Thailand, this is as common a condiment as salt and pepper are in the West. Lemons can be substituted when limes are not available (if you’re trying to reproduce your favourite Thai dish back home), but it won’t be quite the same.

     There is, however, confusion in the use of English terminology among Thai people, and limes are often erroneously referred to as ‘lemons’ in Thailand. Perhaps the reason is that the first Westerners to translate local language into English didn’t know what limes were and called them lemons as the closest alternative. As a result, ‘lemon’ has stuck and ‘lime’ doesn’t exist in Thai people's English vocabulary; therefore, you’ll sometimes see lemon in recipes that actually call for lime. Limes do have a much more intensely sour and zesty flavour than lemons, and although they may be substituted with the latter, the results definitely lack the vigour that limes give to Thai dishes. So use fresh limes whenever possible, or the pre-squeezed or bottled varieties.

      Thai limes are smaller than American limes, but they’re packed with flavour and juice, and are also a little sweeter. Because limes can vary in degree of sourness, as well as juiciness, the best thing to do when working with a recipe calling for lime juice, is to go by taste. Often it’s not the amount you use, as some juicy limes may lack the intensity of flavour that other drier limes may possess. With cooked dishes, it’s often best to add lime juice toward the end of cooking since the fresh flavour of lime and its sourness can simmer away. In addition to the flavour it imparts, lime juice has a tenderising quality. Squid and meat, for instance, can become very tender and succulent from sitting in a lime-based sauce

       When buying limes, (the regular variety) select ones with smooth, shiny skin and a good weight for their size. They shouldn’t be hard – there should be some give when squeezed to indicate ripeness and juiciness. To get more juice out of your limes, roll them on a hard surface, applying pressure to break the juice sacs, or you can let the limes sit in hot water for a few minutes to soften. Limes are much better fresh. As they age, the juice becomes bitter, and that bitterness can overpower the flavour of your food. It’s best to keep limes in a plastic bag in the fridge or they’ll dry out.

         But limes aren’t just used to add a tangy taste to Thai dishes – you’ll also find them used in the spas on the island. The juice is used as a cleanser for hair and is often used in wraps and scrubs too. So even if you’re not particularly keen on the flavour, you can still find ways to enjoy this versatile citrus fruit in Thailand.

         

Rosanne Turnert


 


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