Three Cheers for the Kaffir Lime

Three cheers for the Kaffir Lime!
Three cheers for the Kaffir Lime!

Most people justify growing Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) for its aromatic leaves – they add authenticity to Asian salads, stir fries and soups. Did you know the fruit of the Kaffir lime has medicinal applications, or that you can turn it into shampoo? If you’re a sensitive, new age foodie-gardener, there’s also good news about this fruit’s common name. Editors take note: it’s hip and more accurate to call the Kaffir lime by its original name! 

Kaffir lime, Citrus hystrix
Kaffir lime, Citrus hystrix

There are many uses for kaffir lime. I use the edible leaves for cookery, juice for drinks like gin and tonic, I grate the rind in cakes and use fruit for making marmalade. The juice can also be used to control head lice, to deter and expel leeches, and the fruit are made into shampoo. That’s pretty versatile, although I haven’t needed to use it against parasites…

Kaffir lime marmalade recipe
* 1kg Kaffir limes;
* 1.75 kg raw, organic sugar;
* 2 litres water;

Special gear
A muslin bag, sieve, and a heavy-based, stainless steel saucepan. Never use aluminium, citric acid liberates toxic aluminium;

Thoroughly wash fruit, halve, squeeze out the pips and juice into a seive to separate the pips from the juice;
Place pips into a muslin bag. Tie it up and place in saucepan;
Slice peel into shreds, add to saucepan;
To the juice add water to make up to 2 litres in volume. Pour into the saucepan, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for two hours with the lid off. Stir regularly;
Cool muslin bag until you can squeeze out any juice. The juice contains pectin needed to make the jam set. Dispose of contents in compost heap;
Stir in sugar, bring jam to the boil on a moderate heat, stirring well, then boil for fifteen minutes;
Test jam has reached thickening point by cooling a small amount on the back of a spoon;
Bottle in sterilised jars before it cools and sets;

Kaffir Lime shampoo
The following recipe comes from Michael Commons, Earth Net Foundation, Thailand. I got it via Darren, a Facebook friend:

* 1 kg Kaffir limes;
* 1 litre clean water;

Special gear
A section of muslin about the size of a towel, and a heavy based, stainless steel saucepan;

1. Wash fruit, slice into quarters;
2. Remove seed;
3. Add fruit and water to a stainless steel saucepan;
4. Bring to boil, then simmer until fruit are soft, approximately 1.5 to 2 hours;
5. Cool pulp, then squeeze through muslin. This is your shampoo;
6. Use immediately, or
7. To store, re-boil the pulp and bottle it in sterilised glass jars;

Boiling creates a more custard-like fruit pulp, but the cooking time allows you to reduce the water content. By reducing the amount of water you increase the effectiveness of the shampoo, preventing it from separating. The shampoo acts as a combined hair cleaning agent and a hair conditioner.

Kaffir lime – what’s in the name?

Why are people, including cooks, a subtropical gardening magazine, and ABC Television propagating the misconception that there’s anything wrong with the name Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix)?

The term kaffir (aka kafir or kuffar) has long been historically applied to non-Muslims, it means ‘unbeliever’ – a non-Muslim.

Kaffir was then misapplied by Boer colonists who once called indigenous South Africans kaffirs.

However, the very earliest written instance of Kaffir lime suggests that the word’s origins have nothing to do with racism in South Africa.

First documented reference to the Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix)
First documented reference to the Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix)

The Oxford English Dictionary points out that Scottish botanist and Kew-trained Curator, H.F. Macmillan, was the first to use the term Kaffir lime in his 1910 ‘Handbook of Tropical Gardening and Planting’.

I have a copy in my library, and Macmillan refers to a lime cultivated in Sri Lanka, the home of an ethnic group that refer to themselves as the Kaffirs. Originally of North African and Middle Eastern descent, they helped Portuguese settlement. Sri Lanka’s Kaffirs now mostly live in an enclave in the Puttalam district and the majority practise Catholicism [Pers. Comm. Sujee Warathnayaka, Sri Lanka, Feb. 2016].

Macmillan lived in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, for thirty years, and it was there that he wrote his botanical handbook. It is difficult to verify how he, and the other people he heard using the term Kaffir lime, understood the connotation of the word, but it seems at least possible that the name began innocuously and in connection with the Sri Lankan Kaffirs who use Kaffir lime as an edible crop and a medicinal plant. [Pers. Comm. Dr. Achala Attanayake, Deputy Director, Peradeniya Botanic Gardens].

Deputy Director, Peradeniya Botanic Gardens meets The Adventure Travellers
Deputy Director, Peradeniya Botanic Gardens meets The Adventure Travellers, Jan 2016

Given that the earliest evidence of the Kaffir lime’s name comes from Sri Lanka, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower says, “It seems very likely that it comes from that particular strand.”

By convention, it is expected that any plant is referred to by its most commonly accepted name in the media.

 Cooks, a certain subtropical gardening magazine, and ABC Television are therefore in error to misapply the name ‘Makrut’ to the Kaffir lime.

Makrut lime is the third most commonly used common name for Citrus hystrix in English speaking countries.

The second most commonly used name is Leech lime. Those who have no interest in science or accuracy dislike like using Leech lime, because they associate it with an unpleasant blood sucking parasite. 

The point of research is to gain a better understanding, and one of the traditional medicinal uses of a Kaffir lime by Sri Lankan Kaffirs is to deter, to rid and to treat wounds caused by leeches.

Sri Lanka’s Kaffirs are proud of their ancestry. I invite you to join me in calling the Kaffir Lime a Kaffir Lime. In so doing you are reclaiming language, an old tradition where persecuted people reclaim the language used to demean them.

An example is where Methodists reclaimed the word ‘methodist’, a word which had been used to put them down for their punctuality. That put down now defines their culture.

The internet certainly gives us cheap and instant access to information, but it doesn’t give us instant wisdom.

If you want to taste test Kaffir Lime marmalade, come along to my Open Day, Mother’s Day Weekend, 7-8th May 2016. I’ll be selling my surplus.

Three cheers for Sri Lanka’s Kaffirs and for those versatile Kaffir limes!

Jerry Coleby-Williams
24th March 2016

* ‘Mabberley’s Plant Book’, 3rd Edition, by D. J. Mabberley: “Citrus hystrix DC. (kaffir, leech or makrut lime, Mal.) – ‘lime leaves’ of (esp. Thai) cuisine, effective leech repellent;” Page 191. This work is an internationally accepted, comprehensive, essential reference using taxonomic details using English and vernacular names, for anyone studying, growing or writing about plants: among the most authoritative botanical texts available. Published: Cambridge University Press, 2008;

* ‘Handbook of Tropical Gardening and Planting’, H.F. Macmillan, published by H.W. Cave & Co., Amen Corner, Colombo, Ceylon, 1910; Page 140;

With updates, gratefully received, from:

* M. Ang, Facebook friend, who forwarded information from lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, 26.9.15;

* Sujee Warathnayaka, Proprietor, Responsible Travel, Sri Lanka, January 2016;

* Dr. Achala Attanayake, Deputy Director, Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, Sri Lanka, January 2016;

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks Jerry, very interesting to see that so thoroughly considered.

  2. Richard Symmonds says:

    Thank you Jerry. It’s great to be enlightened about plant origins and associated cultures.



  3. Melva Ward says:

    Fantastic to get the origin of the name Kaffir Lime. Seems a lot of New Zealanders have certainly got the wrong information.I will continue to use the name Kaffir Lime. Melva 🙂

  4. stephsmith134197 says:

    Happy new year Jerry,
    Just a quick question about my Kaffir lime, the fruit never seem to develop large than a 5 cent piece then drop off, they also don’t look very green. I treat it like my Eureka Lemon and that’s going great guns, what am i doing wrong? Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, your my only hope.

    Located in Manly West

    1. A clear sign of inadequate and irregular watering.

  5. Very interesting article, and I’ll never call it anything other than a kaffir lime.

  6. Rose says:

    Hi Jerry, when you are slicing the limes for the marmalade recipe, have you removed the membrane that surrounds the flesh before slicing or do you include that in the lime slices? Am looking forward to making some nice tart marmalade so thank you for the recipe.

  7. Thanks for this. I did feel guilty ish by using the original name. Now I don’t.

  8. Roylene says:

    Thank you Jerry. We made your kaffir marmalade today and it was very successful. We used jamsetta instead of the muslin bag of pips and I added a pinch of salt in case they were too bitter. (I also opted for white sugar). It turned out to be the best jam I have ever made. It set perfectly and it is delicious. It goes great with cheese! Waiting now for the next batch of limes so we can make some more!

  9. Jan McLucas says:

    Hi Jerry

    Made the marmalade yesterday from the limes that dropped from my neighbour’s tree. I usually compost them but found your recipe. Worked a treat. I added three cardamom pods and would add more next time.

    Thank you.

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