The Deep Secrets of Makrut (Not Kaffir) Plants.
In recent years, a handful of people in State College got to know my homegrown Thai herb, but I'll never forget one woman who discovered me through Craigslist during the pandemic lockdown.
The advertisement to sell my Makrut leaves led "Molly" to me. Molly had never been to Thailand and never had authentic Thai food before, but she loved exploring different cuisines when some recipes called for Kaffir Thai lime leaves.
I have been spreading the joy of this exotic herb and teaching people not to use the word "Kaffir." I have no idea who came up with that name, but it's supposed to be the "N" word in some countries, so we need to ditch it! And honestly, I had never heard of Kaffir, until I moved to State College. In Thailand, this herb is called "Magrood." It's an essential ingredient.
This blog is for those who are lovers of authentic Thai cuisine. Many of Janejira's Kitchen cooking participants have bought live plants from me. Some were reluctant to buy them because of the stories I told in class. The truth is, I have learned a lot over the years, and I'm about to share all the deep secrets of raising a happy Magrood couple.
A couple, they must be. I sell the plants in pairs. Why? My first plant is 22 years old today. My uncle in Chicago gave it to my mom, who carried it on the plane to visit me in Virginia. The plant was about 5 inches tall at the time. Over the years, it grew taller and taller but produced almost no leaves. I was lucky if I had two a year. After a decade–married with a child–I went to visit my uncle, and that's when he gave me a new plant and said to throw away the first one. Of course, I didn't! I had been moving it to four different homes by that point. When I brought this new plant home, the first one magically sprung leaves by surprise and almost overnight! It was incredible. Magical. A miracle. In Thai, we call this jealousy. The first plant was jealous of the new plant. It's not cross-pollination because they never bear flowers or fruits. I believe every living thing has feelings and needs a friend. About three years later, I could not tell them apart.
My mother's side of the family all have green thumbs. They say I do too, but I believe in research, trial, and experience. And just like some recipes that I often tweak, I do the same with gardening. They say that plants like music. I'm not sure they do, but I listen to the Beatles during harvest time. And I always say farewell to the plants as I pass them to their new home.
On occasion, I get a text or email with care questions. This blog will shed some light on all inquiry minds. The first thing to keep in mind, Magrood is from Southeast Asia, where the climate is hot and humid. If you worry about heat waves? Well, you've never been to Thailand. The east coast can never be too hot for Magrood! If Vivaldi wrote the four seasons of Thailand, there would be: hot, real hot, damn hot, and hell hot.
DOS AND DON'TS
1. Over watering will cause the leaves to turn yellow. So water well, but don't flood it and allow the soil to dry out at least an inch deep before watering again. Change the soil once a year or every other year. (If you want to skip a year, because sometimes we need to slack off, give it extra nutrients like crushed eggshell, topsoil, or compost. Don't overfeed them, as the leaves will also turn yellow.) Do water around the perimeter of the pot, not in the middle.
2. Living on the east coast, Summer is the only time for pruning. Trim off small stems and all the leaves, leaving just a couple at the ends. (See pictures below) It looks/sounds scary, but it's mandatory! New leaves will not grow from harvested stems. Pruning will result in new stems and leaves. Bing Go!
3. The plant may look dead during the winter. They're prone to aphids and spider mites when coming from outdoors. To minimize that, you can change the soil (trim the roots if needed, if your plants are old and large). Use the garden hose to hose down all the leaves/bugs/eggs. Put back into the pot with new organic soil and squirt Diatomaceous earth over the soil; this is especially important around the base of the plant so insects can't crawl from the dirt to the leaves. Bring the plant indoors before the frost.
4. The Winter season is the resting season. They won't produce more leaves unless you have a thriving climate. I never harvest during this period. Yes, we have long winters; this is why the leaves are precious and costly. Harvested leaves should be kept in the refrigerator or frozen for up to a year. (Even longer, but with a drastic loss in flavor.)
5. Spots on the leaves can happen for different reasons. If water/hose the leaves during mid-day while the sun's strong, they'll get sunburn. If bugs infestation occurs during winter, the plant won't die; trim off all the leaves during summer. New leaves will bud after a week or so.
Plant them straight into the ground if you're going away for the summer. Let nature do its work, and follow the above suggestion once you're ready to bring them indoors.
Which pot is better, clay or plastic? I use both, and I have no preference. A clay pot will dry out faster, so you'll have to water it more often.
Before our family spent a semester on sabbatical, living abroad, I prepared the plants for winter. And with minimal instruction, our renter kept them alive and well the entire time we were away. They're not as high-maintenance as you'd think.
HOW TO USE MAGROOD
Aside from cooking with the leaves in Thai curries, they can be consumed raw in salads. Remove the spine and slice thinly. You can create your own tea infusion or add a twist to your favorite cocktail drink. The use is endless, and the benefit is bountiful.
WHERE TO BUY