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I love lime leaves. In fact, I bought a lime tree so that I can have them all the time without making a grocery run. The leaves look like this:

three lime leaves... or six?

I have some very nice recipes that call for them but even my French/Cambodian cookbook with the amazing illustrated ingredient encyclopedia does not clear up one thing:

Is that three leaves or six?

I'm in the middle of making a paste right now that calls for five "lime leaves" and so, according to my usual habit, I'm going to go and pluck 5 leaves off the tree... Which means, I'll have 10 leaf segments. Or will I have 10 leaves?

The taste is so nice that I've never had the feeling I was doubling the amount called for. Still, I'm curious—is there some widespread agreement, or even better, an authoritative source regarding what is "1 leaf?"


Note: It has come to my attention that one of the common names for the lime leaves common to Southeast Asian cuisine carries a strongly offensive connotation. For more information, I recommend reading this article on The Plate blog from National Geographic, which provides links to several other worthy articles on the subject. I have removed or replaced this terminology from the question and would recommend that users choose to do the same in their comments and answers.

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    It's definitely all just one leaf botanically (three in the picture), but I don't know if people in the culinary world have come up with their own meaning! – Cascabel Mar 13 '15 at 3:26
  • How do they appear when you buy commercially produced leaf? I imagine that a single piece (however it is packaged) is considered a single leaf. – Derpy Mar 13 '15 at 3:33
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    So far I've found one website of unknown authority that says one leaf is a "double" leaf in "most" Thai recipes. Does not speak to other recipes and until I find more/better sources, holding off on a verdict. – Air Mar 13 '15 at 4:19
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    "Leaves" isn't is very precise measurement to begin with, no matter what the plant is. In your picture the top leaf looks more than twice the size (by area) of the bottom leaf, so there appears to be a lot variation in size. Since you're apparently very familiar with this particular ingredient, you can probably get away with just using your own judgement. – Ross Ridge Mar 13 '15 at 4:39
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    In the UK if you buy them frozen, they come in single leaves (i.e half a full leaf) just thought I'd throw that in there :-) – Doug Mar 13 '15 at 7:39
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What does "1 leaf" mean?

Since there does not seem to be a clear consensus, this answer will attempt to weigh both positions.

For the sake of clarity, in this answer:

  • Digits (1, 2, etc.) refer to the number indicated in the ingredient list;
  • "Full leaf" means two attached segments, as they grow from the tree;
  • "Half leaf" means one segment (attached or detached).

Evidence-based arguments

This section presents sources that address the meaning of "1 leaf" either explicitly or implicitly. The most explicit sources so far tend to fall into the "half leaf" camp.

1 leaf means "full"

  • fourwindsgrowers.com:

    The leaves are double-lobed and the top leaflets are slightly pointed. The leaflet attached below is broadened on its upper edge. The size of the leaves can vary quite a bit, from less than an inch to several inches long. The medium to large size, more mature leaves are darker in color and usually preferred for cooking.

    This excerpt is attributed on the above website to a book titled It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking by Kasma Loha-unchit (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995). See also: thaifoodandtravel.com (below, in the "unclear" section).

1 leaf means "half"

  • foodsubs.com:

    [The leaves] look as if two glossy, dark green leaves were joined together end to end, forming a figure-eight pattern. Most Thai recipes count each double leaf as two separate leaves.

  • mvcitrus.org.au:

    The leaves ... are a dark green color with a glossy sheen. They come in two parts: the top leaflet is lightly pointed at its tip and is attached to another leaflet beneath that is broader on its upper edge. The size of the leaves can vary quite a bit, from less than an inch to several inches long. ... In recipes that call for them, estimate the number to use according to their size, with the average single leaflet (detached from its double) of about two inches long and an inch wide equaling one leaf.

Unclear

  • thaitable.com:

    A leaf has two connecting leaves which I call ‘double leaves’.

    Sounds like this one is in both camps at the same time. Each leaf is two leaves—very zen.

  • importfood.com:

    lime leaves grow in doubles. Sizes vary, but the average individual leaf is approx 2" long.

    This site indicates that there are ~25-30 individual fresh leaves per dry ounce. May need to contact the seller and/or take independent measurements to determine confidently which camp this falls into.

  • cooksinfo.com:

    The leaves are a dark, glossy green and look like two leaves stuck together tip to tip; they are often described as being "double-lobed" or "double-leaves." Each separate leaf is about 2 inches long (5 cm.)

    This could go either way; "[they] look like two" implies "but are actually one," yet the phrase "separate leaf" implies the opposite. Length cited agrees with above, but this could just mean they have a common source (or one is taken from the other).

  • thaifoodandtravel.com:

    The dark green leaves come in double form – a more pointed top leaf joined to a more rounded bottom leaf.

    The zen approach again. Note: This is written by the author of the book mentioned in the Four Winds Growers entry, above.

  • theepicentre.com:

    They come in two parts: the top leaflet is lightly pointed at its tip and is attached to another leaflet beneath that is broader on its upper edge. The size of the leaves can vary quite a bit, from less than an inch to several inches long.

  • specialtyproduce.com:

    The leaves grow in pairs from stem to stem. Sizes can vary from leaf to leaf, though they each have a teaspoon shape with pointed ends that can also be sharp, certainly a natural defense mechanism.

    I was inclined at first to put this in the "half" camp based on "the leaves grow in pairs." However, "they each have a teaspoon shape with pointed ends" gives me pause because the "half" at the stem is typically rounded or cardioid in shape. So the "each" there sounds like it refers to each "full" leaf. The "half" at the stem has no sharp tip, being attached at either end to something else.

  • boxedupchef.com:

    No quote, but interesting to note that this is the first source I've come across that shows an image of the leaves separated into two "halves." Even the sources above that are explicitly in the "half" camp show images of the conjoined "full" leaf.

Practical arguments

This section discusses why (and when) one or the other interpretation might be more appropriate, practically speaking.

1 leaf means "full"

  • "Half leaves" do not occur by themselves; only "full leaves" grow on the tree, so each one/single leaf must be this "full leaf."
  • "Full leaves" vary less in size than "half leaves" because they always contain one "half" from the branch side (usually smaller) and one "half" from the tip side (usually larger).
  • Using "full leaves" when cooking imparts a more intense flavor to the dish, which may be particularly important when using frozen or dried leaves (avoids under-seasoning the dish if you read the recipe incorrectly).
  • Thinking in terms of "full leaves" when writing a recipe ensures that at worst, the reader will use less of the ingredient than is called for, which may do less harm than using more than is called for.
  • In some trees, especially very young trees, the "half" on the branch side is so small as to be almost entirely stem; it would not make sense to refer to this "half" as "1 leaf" since it has no practical use.

1 leaf means "half"

  • Each "half" is distinct, shaped more like a typical leaf than the "full" pair, and easily separated from its neighbor.
  • The most explicit sources give "half" as the common meaning of "1 leaf," so using this meaning may be the quickest way to be understood most of the time by people who are already familiar with the ingredient.
  • Using "half leaves" when cooking imparts a less intense flavor to the dish, which may be particularly important when using fresh leaves (avoids potentially overpowering the dish if you read the recipe incorrectly).

A better terminology?

I would encourage anyone who shares or writes a recipe calling for lime leaves to clarify exactly how to measure "1 leaf" or to avoid using the term "leaf" at all. Weight measure would be ideal in many cases but can be impractical, depending on the rest of the ingredients in the recipe (and how much time you care to devote to measurement). Some alternatives include:

  • Whoops. I had initially intended this to be a relatively dry collection of quotes; when it turned into something longer and more involved, I forgot to uncheck the CW box. Oh well—feel free to add sources, especially print sources (thoroughly cited), but please try to be conservative in which category you assign them to. – Air Mar 13 '15 at 18:07
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I see three leaves there. Citrus leaves are compound leaves. They all look like that, but the kafir lime just has a larger lower section of the leaf than other citrus.

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    Yup, that's what I said in my comment - but how do you know that's what recipe authors are thinking when they write the ingredient list? (Pedantic note: compound refers to leaflets attached to the petiole or an extension of it; I think these aren't actually compound, just deeply hourglass-shaped.) – Cascabel Mar 13 '15 at 16:13
  • Citrus leaves most definitely do not all look like that. I have three of them on my property alone, and only the makrut lime has a discernable compound leaf. I am certain the meyer lemon does not; I am less sure about the navel orange, as it's full-grown and I have less opportunity to see the base of the leaves up close, but from the ground they appear to be single leaves. – Air Mar 13 '15 at 16:13
  • (As for the right name for that kind of shape... I think they're just really deeply lobed in a particular way? It's an uncommon enough shape I'm having trouble finding anything. Pinnatisect means deep opposite lobing, but this is a little more specific.) – Cascabel Mar 13 '15 at 16:17
  • @Air I am sorry, but citrus leaves do all look like that. The difference is in the kifer lime the lower segment is much more pronounced. Other citrus have varying differences in proportion between the lower and upper lobes, but all citrus most certain do have both lobes. In some, the lower lobe may be diminutive enough to look like thick stem, but it's actually the lower lobe of the leaf. – Escoce Mar 13 '15 at 16:33
  • I took a closer look at my trees this evening. Many of the orange leaves do clearly have this "lower lobe" but it is very, very small and they do not at all look like the makrut lime leaves. Very few of the meyer lemon leaves have a "lower lobe" that can be distinguished from a stem. The distinction to me seems purely academic. – Air Mar 14 '15 at 4:08

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