Makrut lime leaves are derived from the bumpy, citrus fruits. These fruits are intensely bitter and rarely used for cooking, while the leaves carry the characteristic citrus aromatics and are often used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. Compared to the leaves of limes traditionally used in the West like the Persian or Tahitian lime and the key lime, makrut lime leaves have a distinct taste and aroma.
The original name, “kaffir”, has been generating controversy as it has racially inappropriate connotations since it comes from the Arabic word “kafir”, meaning infidel. This has led to its alternative name “makrut” becoming more popular today. Even in specialty stores, it can be hard to find makrut lime leaves, but these makrut (Kaffir) lime leaf substitutes will allow you to get the next best flavor for all your recipes.
#1. Lime Zest
Lime zest is simply the pigmented part of the lime peel, often finely grated to use in different recipes. The aromatic oils of the peel are extracted during zesting and can be stronger in flavor than using the juice of the same fruit. Not only is this a close approximation of the makrut lime leaf, but the vitamin C and antioxidants of the zest also provide powerful support to the immune system.
Lime zest can be substituted in any recipe that calls for makrut lime leaves to great effect. The grated citrus peel is safe for consumption, especially after being washed. Be sure to avoid using the white pith underneath for the best results.
1 makrut lime leaf = 1 and ½ teaspoons of lime zest.
The lower stalk of this tall grass species is commonly used in Asian cuisines to impart a complex citrus flavor with some spice, similar to the taste of ginger. Bruising and breaking the lemongrass down before cooking it with other ingredients also helps to release its aroma and taste. Look for firm stalks that are a pale yellow to white color for the best flavor.
While lemongrass is suitable to use in various broths and soups, it cannot be used to substitute for much else when a recipe calls for makrut lime leaves. This is because lemongrass is incredibly tough and is usually removed before a dish is served. If you’re determined to keep lemongrass in, grate it to achieve a flavor similar to thinly sliced makrut lime leaves.
3-4 makrut lime leaves = 1 lemongrass stalk (chopped).
#3. Lemon Thyme
Lemon thyme is a herb popularly used in a blend known as Herbs de Provence from the Provence region of France. Although it is technically part of the mint family, it has a distinct citrus aroma and flavor which makes it a viable substitute for makrut lime leaves. The shrub-like clusters are grown and often used as a tea to remedy nasal congestion. It is also rich in antioxidant properties.
Lemon thyme is almost a substitution of substitution because any recipe calling for lemon, its juice, or its zest can use lemon thyme instead. So instead of using makrut lime leaves, you can use lime zest or lemon thyme, or even a combination of both to get the bright citrus of the makrut leaves with the flavor of lime.
1 makrut lime leaf = 1 teaspoon lemon thyme.
#4. Lime Juice
Cut and squeeze fresh lime and the juice that comes out can be used as a substitute for makrut lime leaves. Bottled versions of lime juice have additional ingredients to preserve the juice for a long time, which can affect the flavor of your dish. You might also find lime crystals that are essentially a dried version of lime juice but stick with fresh limes if you can.
Adding more liquid to a recipe isn’t always a good idea, so reserve lime juice to replace makrut lime leaves in recipes that are liquid-based like soups broths, or curries. If other ingredients, like rice, will easily soak up the extra liquid without becoming too soggy, you can also substitute lime juice in these cases, too.
1 makrut lime leaf = 1 teaspoon lime juice.
#5. Lime Oil
Lime oil can be made from the distilled oils of the makrut lime tree leaves, other lime tree leaves, or the peels of any lime species. Because the oil is often made directly from makrut lime leaves, this is your closest substitute without using the real deal. But, be careful when buying lime oil as a substitute, because it is often produced as an essential oil not meant for ingestion.
This concentration of aromatics is strong, so be careful when using it as a substitute as it can become overpowering quickly. Lime oil is suitable for any recipe with makrut lime leaves as long as the extra liquid isn’t a cooking issue.
1 makrut lime leaf = 1-2 drops of lime oil.
#6. Bay Leaves
Bay leaves work in much the same way as makrut lime leaves since they are used to season many dishes and then discarded without being eaten. The complex flavor profile can perfectly mimic that of the makrut lime leaf, but it lacks the citrus notes. It is best to combine bay leaves with lime or lemon zest to create a better substitution.
The best dishes to use bay leaves as a substitute are savory ones where they can easily be removed whole. This includes soups and rice dishes where makrut lime leaves are commonly used. If you slice bay leaves thinly, you might find recipes where it can be used to replace makrut lime leaves cut in the same fashion.
1 makrut lime leaf = 1 bay leaf.