Twice this past week-end, I prepared a simple dish combining a few very much local ingredients: easy, lots of flavors, nice colors, great smell, happy eaters… and no need to apply heat: as far as I am concerned, the perfect summer party dish. What was it? Melon & Virginia Country Ham Salad with Combava (Kaffir Lime) Leaf Dressing.
Both times guests were really intrigued by my “secret ingredient” and were trying – unsuccessfully to place it- until I told them what it was: Kaffir lime (aka Combava). The Oxford Companion To Food recommends that the traditional name “Kaffir lime” be replaced by “makhrut lime” or “makrud lime” (makhrut/makrud being the transliteration of the Thai word) because Kaffir is a derogatory term for a black person in South Africa . But very few people do it and Kaffir lime is by far the more common. However I have also seen Combava lime (which is one of its French name). Since I like the deep musical sound of “combava” and the word reminds me of my years in France, that’s the name I’ll be using to describe what is known botanically as Citrus hystrix.
Combava is a citrus plant originating in South East Asia, where its leaves are used in cooking. Many people in the US have encountered Combava when eating at Thai restaurants. The leaves are roughly hour-glass shaped, or rather, one leaf looks like two leaves put together end-to-end. The fruit is small, green, round and has very little juice. I grate the rind (that is when I am lucky enough that my tree gives me fruit) and use it to flavor drinks and many dishes; slice the fruit very thinly and mix it with chili peepers, garlic and other spices to make a fresh chutney/salsa to serve with fish and rice. The fruit can also be candied producing an interesting sour/slightly bitter and yet sweet confection – a little like candied pomelo rind. The plant is tender here in the Northern Piedmont (and in most of the US), but as with many citrus, it can live happily in a large pot, that spends the winter in a cool sunny room.
The leaves are what I used for my dish. But although the flavors were similar, the presentation of the dish was not because there were two very different meals. Yes, I know, I am getting to specialize in “obscure leafy ingredients” in the words of David Lebovitz. But it’s easy to grow, you can buy it frozen in markets specializing in South East Asia ingredients and it is really good! By the way, don’t use dry leaves: they have a very different texture, the taste is fainter and they will not give you the appealing bright green flecks that you get with the fresh leaves.