Both lemons and limes are grown in India, but the lemons are not the variety grown in many parts of the world, where Eureka lemons predominate. In addition, many of the limes in India are yellow in colour. To add to the confusion, “raw lemon” and “yellow lime” are sometimes specified in recipes. Some varieties are almost sweet, like our Myer Lemon. Finally, to add to the confusion, the word for lemon and for lime is the same in Hindi (nimbu). You can definitely expect to be confused. If a recipe for an Indian dish says lemon, does it actually mean lime?
These tart citrus fruits are used in India for the sour tang that they add to dishes. The juice helps to balance the chilli heat in dishes. They are used make delicious cooling drinks, for example Sweet Lime Soda which is ubiquitously available on the Malabar Coast.
So is it lemon or lime that you should use use in Indian recipes?
Although regional differences occur, citrus closer in flavour to our lime varieties are more predominant in India than fruits closer to our lemon varieties. In most cases in Indian recipes, when lemon is specified, use lime.
Limes are much cheaper in India, with lemons only appearing in higher-end markets and supermarkets. They are generally snapped up by large restaurants and hotels and pickle and juice makers. Therefore it is the lime that is used in Indian households.
If you don’t have limes, most dishes from India work well with whichever one you have at hand. I have found that they are reasonably interchangeable: although the tastes will be a little different depending on whether you use a lemon or lime, the recipes will work with either one.
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