The next time you need a fragrant citrus kick for your salads, grilled fish or stews, skip the fridge and reach for your pantry.
What you are looking for is black lime, a Persian spice made of dried limes. Even if you don’t know much about Persian cuisine, you will soon find out that this will become your secret weapon in the kitchen.
Chefs like Ottolenghi have been trying for years to bring dried limes out of the home kitchens of Middle Eastern family kitchens and into the mainstream. So what exactly are they and how do you use it?
What are black dried limes?
Black limes are essentially fresh limes that are blanched in salt water (which means they are briefly scalded in boiling water before being plunged into freezing water) and left to dry until they're rock hard, resulting in golf size, brown to black coloured balls with a brittle texture that easily yields itself to a grinder. While traditionally sun-dried on banana-leaf mats, black limes can also be made in an oven or dehydrator. Dried limes will probably take around two days to make in the oven, but the result can be stored for up to two years. You know the lime is done if it is light and feels hollow.
Dried limes are also referred to as ‘limu Omani’ (‘Omani’ because it was first developed on Oman) and are an essential flavouring ingredient in the cuisines of Iran, Iraq, and other Gulf States. They were originally obtained in this region by leaving the limes to dry on the trees instead of harvesting them.
This simple ingredient has the potential to transform a whole range of dishes with just a small pinch.
What do black dried limes taste like?
Sour and aromatic, like concentrated fresh limes, but beyond the obvious citrus flavour, dried limes present funky, fermented notes rendering it a complexity that cannot be found in its bright green former selves.
Its flavour, in many ways similar to the more popular sumac, is the cornerstone of many stews and braises found in the cuisines of the Middle East, breathing life into heavy meat dishes and otherwise boring vegetables.
How to use black dried lime
These are natural flavour bombs that can be used in two different forms, whole or in a powder.
When left whole, such as in soups or stews, black limes will rehydrate and infuse the cooking liquids with its flavours. Wash them well before using, and pierce it with a sharp knife to let it yield to the liquid.
The other way is to grind it down into a powder which can then be used as a spice or garnish. Ground black lime powder makes for a great marinade for chicken, or sprinkled over salads, meats, and pastas.
Cocktail bartenders are well aware of how to make the most of this astringent, sour spice. Black lime powder, whether used to rim glasses or used to dip slices of fruit garnish adds drama to any good tipple.
Traditional concoctions seasoned with black lime
One of the most ubiquitous uses of black lime is in loomi tea, a tart brew enjoyed across the Middle East. Add rum and angostura bitters, and you get quite the cutting-edge cocktail.
Black limes are also used extensively to season fish and other meats, like chicken, especially on the Arabian Peninsula. For example, this spice is central to the most emblematic dish of Bahrain, chicken machboos, which is a spicy chicken and rice dish that also involves rosewater and Baharat, a traditional Middle Eastern spice mix.